My Middle-Class Existence Hangs by the Thread of Subsidized Childcare

One Thursday morning last month I took a break from my job as a journalist and freelance writer and, after dropping off my 2-year-old at his subsidized daycare, drove myself and my 10-week-old daughter across town to a cupcake shop. Our mission? To decorate Cupcake-grams that, a national non-profit that targets family and children's issues, planned to deliver to every last member of the Washington State legislature along with a note about the critical importance of early childhood care and learning.

I didn't do this just for the fun or the frosting. I did it because my livelihood was at stake.

Washington State had threatened deep budget cuts in a number of areas, including slicing $30 million from the Working Connections Childcare program that helped to fund my childcare. I'm a single parent. I work hard to support my family of three but I don't make anywhere near enough to pay the $2,000-plus a month I'd need to put two kids in full-time daycare. Working Connections gives me the freedom to work and therefore feed, clothe and house my children. If it goes, I'm screwed.

Though the cupcake protest may be an original spin on things, our merry band of frosters was far from alone. In Buffalo (childcare subsidies eliminated for four in 10 children), in Chicago (proposed $150 million cuts in human services, among them childcare), in Brooklyn (15 daycare centers slated to close in July) and in California (proposed cut of 18,000 childcare spaces), protesters are hitting the phone lines and the streets because they recognize something the legislators and the mainstream media seem to have missed: Child care really matters.

For the majority of today's families, child care is an expensive but all too necessary fact of life. In 1975, nearly half of families with children consisted of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. Today, only one in five families still embody that traditional set-up. In fact mothers are now primary breadwinners--making as much or more than their spouse or filling the role of single working parent --in nearly four in 10 families. And as more mothers flood the workplace, families have to shoulder the often dizzying costs of finding someone else to watch their kids. Getting help with childcare isn't an added perk like a parking space in the company garage. It's a lynchpin, one that can affect healthy child development, job security and the frayed economic realities of today's low-income families.

People need to appreciate that funding quality child are isn't just a work support issue, it's also a child development issue," says Danielle Ewen, the director of childcare and early learning at the Center for Law and Social Policy. "If we don't invest in early childhood care and learning, kids will arrive at school unprepared to learn. It will affect the number of children with special needs. It will affect graduation rates. It goes to the heart of what our public education system is all about."

For many of us, childcare subsidies play a critical role in the economic infrastructure, bridging the gap to provide a service as essential as food or housing. About 30 percent of all low-income families using child care centers, and 16 percent using an in-home care giver receive subsidies, about 14 percent of those who are federally eligible. Not only do such subsidies ensure that parents can work, they also place those children in healthy environments focused on development and learning. If subsidies disappear, many low-income families are forced into an impossible situation in which their income is less than the cost of paying someone to watch their child.

It's a lifesaver," says Francine Almash, a Brooklyn resident and single parent who relies on subsidies to pay for daycare for her three children. Almash, who works as a freelance editor and splits her time between telecommuting and going in to the office, pays $5 a week to send her kids to a city-funded daycare center near her home. "Without the subsidies I'd have to pay a minimum of about $2,100 a month, even to put my kids in a city-funded daycare. There's no way I could possibly afford that. It's almost my entire income."

When asked what she would do if her subsidy were cut, there's a long silence.

I don't know," Almash finally says. "I really don't know. Maybe I could try to keep one kid home? I'd probably just have to quit working and go on public assistance."

For families like Almash's, the loss of childcare subsidies would be devastating. The subsequent scramble for any kind of care, let alone a licensed quality provider, would force them to play fast and loose with their children's well-being.

"There are issues of child development and child safety at stake," says Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the Center for American Progress. "Without subsidies, more kids will wind up in unstable care situations that the parents are managing day to day. They may be shuffled around to friends or relatives or even be left home alone to take care of themselves."

For many, the juggling required to grapple with suboptimal childcare can lead to taking days off work, arriving late and leaving early. As a result, parents risk losing those same jobs subsidies are meant to help facilitate. In addition, cuts in childcare dollars mean that childcare workers, many of whom are women and many of whom are single parents, now face having their hours cut or their jobs eliminated.

"In part, we see childcare subsidies as a job program," Boushey says. "Without reliable childcare, many low-income parents are forced into a position where they are less consistent on the job because they are dealing with childcare-related issues. They risk losing jobs and losing promotions. And in a tight job market like we have now, driving people out of the workplace is the last thing we want to be doing."

What also seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle is how much such cuts could potentially cost individual states and the country as a whole. If I lost my daycare subsidy I would have to turn to food stamps, Medicaid, temporary assistance for needy families, Section 8, and every other social service out there to support my zero-income family. I would wind up the kind of financial burden no one's looking to take on these days. In addition, every child who doesn't get what they need in terms of early childhood care and learning risks costing the system more down the line in the form of behavioral problems or poor school performance.

"Childcare faces a serious threat right now," says Ewen. "The short-term implications of the recession are very bad. We could see states making tremendous cuts, particularly once the stimulus money expires. The hard truth is that we can't make any reforms without resources. We know what we need to do -- develop a system in which the highest quality care is available to the widest range of families. Now it's a question of finding the means to do it."

The Obama administration seems committed to early childhood care and learning, pledging an additional $1.6 billion toward the Child Care and Development Block Grant in fiscal year 2011 (a pledge that still has to make it through Congress). Advocates hit a major stumbling block when the Early Learning Challenge Grant --$8 billion stretched across eight years targeted for education and learning for children from birth to age 5 --wasn't included in the final health care bill passed by the Senate. Now it's up to Congress to allocate more money to the states and also to states to put their own resources on the table.

We can only hope they see the bigger issues at stake. Investing in childcare means investing in the future of our children and our education system, in job growth and creation. It isn't a handout. It's a crucial step toward helping individuals to help themselves.


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