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In a County With More Babies Than Any Other, Childcare Comes at a Cost — and Not Just for Parents

In California, childcare for infants costs as much as tuition in the University of California system, according to new data.

In California, childcare for infants costs as much as tuition in the University of California (UC) system, according to new data from the Lucile Packard Foundation of Children’s Health.

In 2014, parents of infants in California spent an average of more than $13,300 on childcare. That year, UC tuition and fees were just over $13,200.

At the national level, all eyes are on college affordability. But the lack of affordable early childhood options has even more dire long-term consequences.

Achievement gaps start early. According to a report this year from the Economic Policy Institute, children from more affluent backgrounds tend to perform better than lower-income children in reading and math as early as kindergarten. And that gap then continues throughout the rest of the kids’ schooling.

“For most families, if you’re talking about full-time care for an infant or toddler, those costs certainly rival, if not exceed in many cases, higher education costs,” says Ted Lempert, the president of Children Now and a former California State Assemblyman. “Some kids have access to really caring, well-trained adults in very strong early childhood programs, and a lot of kids have nothing. And that’s putting those children at a huge disadvantage very early on.”

The costs are highest in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles County has more babies (age 0 to 2) than any other county in the state — nearly 200,000 babies in all. In LA, the average cost of infant care is more than $14,300; in Orange County, it’s more than $15,000.

Quality Early Care Is Out of Reach for Many

The affordability crisis is happening at the same time that there’s growing recognition of how important quality childcare is for a baby’s development.

“This was not a major topic 10 or 15 years ago,” says Lempert. “In the past, even in recent years, it’s been really only about the family economics — the idea that we have to get childcare so that the parents can work. That’s critical, but in addition to that, there’s so much more focus now as well on things like opportunity gaps and inequities — the idea that childcare is critical for the child in terms of an anti-poverty strategy. It’s both generations we’re supporting.”

In the United States, there’s long been a mindset that when a child is very small, they are the parent’s responsibility. While there are subsidized childcare and preschool slots for those families that meet the income eligibility requirements, funding still hasn’t been restored to pre-recession levels, and “even back then we weren’t meeting the need,” says Lempert. A family of three needs to make less than $42,216 per year to qualify for subsidized care.

In LA County, there are only slots in licensed care providers for one out of four children, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. This count does not take into account families who utilize non-licensed providers (like when a child is cared for by a family member or nanny) or part-time after-school programs, says Rowena Kamo, the network’s research director.

“Despite the lack of availability of slots, we are still seeing some facilities close,” Kamo says, noting that some licensed home childcare providers, which tend to be less expensive, have had to shut their doors due to factors like an aging care provider workforce, low reimbursement rates by the state, and a difficult business model.

Care Providers Struggle to Stay Afloat

It’s not just parents feeling the pinch. Even though childcare costs so much, the median wage for childcare workers in California is less than $12 an hour. And ironically, at this wage, a childcare worker who is herself a parent needs to spend over a third of her income to pay for center-based childcare for her own child.

Tonia McMillian has been a home-based childcare provider in Los Angeles for 23 years. She says that while she wants to support low-income parents who need subsidized care, it’s a “balancing act month after month.”

Despite this, she says, “I’m not going to turn my back on families that need the services I offer. You have low-income moms who can’t afford to pay their childcare, especially parents who work variable schedules with last minute call-ins, and they lean on me to be there for them.”

McMillian says the new attention on the crucial nature of the early years for later success has not trickled down to caregivers.

“[Childcare providers] play a major part in developing children’s minds, keeping this economy going, yet we are not being treated as if we are a vital part of the economy,” she says. “[The state] leans on us heavily to meet the needs of parents, but they are not doing their fair share to make sure we have training and wages.”

There’s also sexism at play. “Home-based childcare and center-based providers are a predominately female occupation, and predominately women of color,” she says. “This is a direct reflection of how people look at ‘women’s work,’ and that’s absolutely not fair. But it’s blatant.”

McMillian is co-chair of the Raising California Together Coalition, a program of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Along with other groups, the coalition successfully campaigned for $15 per hour minimum wage, which will be phased into LA County by 2020.

Still, not all caregivers will benefit from the wage hike.

“I’m extremely happy those center-based workers will receive that $15, but home-based providers won’t be seeing that,” McMillian says. Home-based providers are usually considered independent contractors, “even though we do the same work, just in different environments.”

These low wages, the demanding nature of the work, and the lack of a “career ladder to build upon” lead to high rates of turnover among care providers, especially those who work in home-based settings, she says.

And in a profession where expertise has a direct impact on the future educational success of the children cared for, these conditions are becoming increasingly unsustainable.

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