July 17, 2002


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Ringing up baby
The city's lack of low-cost child care is keeping working families poor.

By Cassi Feldman

EVEN BY CONSERVATIVE standards, Laurie Petronis is doing everything right. After a few years on welfare, the single mom was able to finish school while holding down a series of part-time jobs. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in sociology and found a career she loves helping disabled adults. She was recently promoted to program supervisor. But she almost lost it all because her child care was thrown into question.

When Gov. Gray Davis announced plans last July to cut child care financing for 14,000 former welfare recipients, parents and advocates throughout California were outraged. How could single moms be expected to get out of poverty if they couldn't even get out of the house? Under pressure, the governor reversed his decision six months later, restoring the funds for this coming fiscal year. But most parents realize that even with that funding intact – and even in a city as liberal as San Francisco – the country's shifting attitudes toward welfare mean massive child care cuts are still a very real threat.

So real, in fact, that the Children's Council of San Francisco, which provides referrals for subsidized care, wasn't sure until last week whether or not Petronis's three-month-old daughter, Madeira, would be eligible for care. "Please help facilitate this process," Petronis pleaded in a July 3 letter to Armando Zapote, director of family subsidy services at the Children's Council. "Otherwise I am faced with the reality of going back to square one, in addition to having to relocate our entire family."

Zapote quickly intervened, and Petronis was able to get Madeira a coveted spot at Alfa Da Developmental Center in the Mission District. For that she's grateful, but she knows there are more battles ahead. "Unless I can go back to school and get my master's, I'm not going to be in that higher-paying bracket," she said. "It just makes sense to have the resources in place to ensure that working mothers can keep working."

Bay care

Mothers in San Francisco actually have it better than most. At the urging of local advocates, the city helped add 2,000 new child care slots last year; the county now ranks second in the state in its supply of licensed care.

The city's Department of Human Services has also worked to improve employee retention in the field by supplementing the salaries of 633 child care workers by an average of $2.69 an hour and by providing stipends to those who want to continue their education.

But the news isn't all good. Even with more openings and well-educated providers, local child care is still woefully underfunded. According to the 2001 California Child Care Portfolio report, annual infant care costs in San Francisco hover around $10,000 a year. A family earning $30,000 or less would need to pay approximately 35 percent of its income to keep one baby in child care; a family at minimum wage would have to pay 87 percent.

Under state law, they shouldn't have to. Any family making less than 75 percent of the area median income – roughly $35,000 for three people – is eligible for partially or fully subsidized child care. But that doesn't mean they get it, said Maria Luz Torre, lead organizer with the San Francisco chapter of nonprofit Parent Voices. As many as 6,000 eligible children are stuck on a waiting list for subsidized care.

Since the list is prioritized by need, a mother who is homeless or on welfare has a much better chance of finding a slot than one who is squeaking by without government assistance. The result, Torre says, is a vicious cycle in which families can't afford to get ahead.

Too many or too few

Though most child care advocates praise the city's efforts, some quietly acknowledge that open slots aren't always matched with the kids who need them. While some child care centers have long waiting lists – Pacific Primary in the Western Addition had 120 applications for 30 slots this year – others are in danger because they don't have enough kids.

"Last year we experienced a really major exodus of poor families," said Judith Baker, director of South of Market Child Care. "We found people on our waiting list were no longer there." Baker attributes that shift to the recession, a final blow to families just above the poverty line.

Holy Family Day Home, one of the city's oldest child care providers, is also struggling with empty slots. Program director Heather Kenyon seemed surprised to hear that the Children's Council, which refers families to them, had so many waiting.

Part of the problem may be interagency communication, and that's already on the mend. Thanks to a state grant, a centralized child care database should be up and running later this year.

Yet Zapote of the Children's Council notes that even if every empty slot was filled, there still wouldn't be enough vacancies to meet the demand – particularly for infant care. "The need is not being met by the state," he said. "We haven't had an increase in funds in the last four years."

The big picture

The resulting burden disproportionately falls on families struggling to get off or stay off welfare, a fact state and federal officials seem content to ignore.

Local child care advocates traveled to Sacramento five times this spring to demand that state legislators maintain child care funding for former welfare recipients. Again and again these parents emphasized the key role quality child care plays in their own lives and those of their children.

"I feel that everyone should be willing to help parents," said Shawnee Carroll, a 26-year-old single mother of four. "There should be a [day care] program at every job site in the city."

A growing body of research backs up her point. A kid who receives quality child care is ultimately more likely to stay in school and less likely to commit a crime, according to a 2001 report by a California nonprofit.

And prevention saves money. A 1993 Michigan study found that every dollar invested in child care can yield up to $7.16 in savings in law enforcement, welfare costs, and other public spending.

Given numbers like those, child care should arguably top our list of national budget priorities. But that concept seems lost on President George W. Bush and his staff. With the current welfare system, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, set to expire this fall, the Bush administration proposed a dramatic increase in the working hours of parents on welfare and only a $2 billion increase in child care during the next five years. The House of Representatives approved the plan in May.

The Senate Finance Committee passed a less restrictive bill but still only allocated an extra $5.5 billion for child care. "To ignore the urgent needs of poor working families for the next five years is a national disgrace," Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman wrote in a July 1 e-mail. The full Senate will vote on the bill later this summer.

Toward universal care?

Many wonder why the United States isn't more like other countries. Sweden, for example, pays 80 percent of a parent's salary for up to a year after a child's birth. France offers free state-run nursery schools. Torre said that even her native Philippines, a country with limited resources, recognizes child care as a universal right.

That may still be a long way off for the United States, said Joe Wilson, associate director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. "The broader backdrop is the social commitment that we make to families," he said, "the tremendous hypocrisy we have toward poor parents, which is epitomized by the welfare system." On the one hand, parents are asked to work, he said, but the work they do at home is completely ignored.

No one knows that better than Luwanda Jordan, who wakes up her children each morning at 3 a.m. so she can bring them to child care while she works the graveyard shift at UPS. "They're going to hate me when they get older," she says, laughing. "But I'm their mother, I'm their primary care provider. Nobody else is going to do it." E-mail Cassi Feldman at cassi@sfbg.com.