Camille Lazar spent two years filling out applications and waiting on lists—trying to find childcare for her 4-year-old daughter Michelle. For the past year, Lazar has also been trying to find care for her 2-year-old, Austin.
“It’s been so hard,” Lazar said. “I used to work as a dental assistant. The doctor asked me to come back to work. I told him, ‘I can’t work. I have no childcare.’”
Lazar’s story is common in Richmond, where federal, state and local cuts to childcare subsidies have resulted in fewer subsidized slots—or paid spaces in childcare centers or home daycares.
The California Budget Project, a progressive think-tank in Sacramento, released a report last month estimating that California policymakers have cut funding for childcare and preschools by 40 percent in the past five years.
Federal sequestration this year placed additional stress on the Head Start program in Contra Costa, resulting in center closures and job cuts. The Contra Costa County Local Planning Council reported in July that only 17 percent of the need for subsidized care is being met for children under the age of 2.
County waiting lists for Head Start and the Contra Costa Child Care Council have swelled to 6,213 and 3,333 respectively. Some parents spend months, even years, waiting for childcare.
“The history of the cuts goes back to 2010 when Governor Schwarzenegger blue line penciled (vetoed) an entire CalWORKs program called Stage 3,” said Eric Peterson Central & West Area Director for the Contra Costa Child Care Council. “Thousands of kids lost their care as a result. Cuts also came the following year.”
Compounding the shortage of spaces caused by budget cuts, the financial crisis of 2008 fueled unemployment and increased poverty. Richmond hasn’t fully recovered. One in four Richmond families with children under the age of 5 are living below the poverty line according to the US Census Bureau. As the number of people living in poverty has increased, so has the competition for dwindling childcare dollars.
Though they qualify for subsidized care, some parents never receive it.
“It gets worse every year,” said Daniel Winokur, director of development and communications for Brighter Beginnings, a non-profit that provides health care, education and job assistance to families in the East Bay. “It’s a basic operational question; how are you going to serve someone if they don’t have childcare?”
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, things went swiftly downhill for the Lazar family. Lazar’s husband’s work as a realtor dried up. They lost the coffee shop where Lazar worked. Unable to pay the mortgage, their house was foreclosed.
“We lost everything,” Lazar said. And then Austin was born.
For Lazar, persistence paid off, at least in part. In October, Austin received a place at Head Start and Michelle got into part-time state preschool.
Lazar is now able to work about three hours per day—the time that her daughter is in school. She commutes 45 minutes to Novato, to work as a hairdresser’s assistant. Lazar makes $10 per hour.
The family relies on support from the local food bank, and odd jobs that Lazar’s husband picks up.
Head Start in Richmond, where Lazar’s son Austin is enrolled, has a waiting list of 1,872 for 714 available slots. Camilla Rand, the Director of Contra Costa’s Head Start program, said the state has cut the county’s Head Start program by $5 million in the last three years. Federal sequestration cut it by another $1 million.
The Crescent Park Head Start center in Richmond was forced to close, and two childcare partner contracts in Richmond also had to be terminated, Rand said. The cuts led to the elimination of the Early Head Start Home Visiting program for pregnant women and 56 children under the age of three. Nine Head Start employees in Contra Costa lost their jobs, while others took cuts in wages and benefits.
“We have taken a huge hit in this county,” Rand said. “We’ve had some really frustrated parents, who can’t afford full-time care, but they don’t have the same criteria that some other families have that makes them eligible.”
Head Start is not the only childcare organization in the county to feel the squeeze. In the past 5 years, the Contra Costa Childcare Council has been hit with $8 million in cuts—35 percent of its budget said Peterson. It has had to cut services for around 1,000 children in Contra Costa County.
“In the case of highly impacted neighborhoods where nearly every parent is eligible for a subsidy there are not enough ‘slots’ to go around,” Peterson said.
Peterson and Rand said priority is given to parents based on income, although other factors are taken into account, like homelessness, Child Protective Services status, and disability. Peterson said although families may qualify for subsidized care, if they make more than $1,000 per month, it’s likely they will never make it off the waiting list.
Making too much money is not Janaya Plummer’s problem. With an income of $600 per month, Plummer received a slot within two months.
Plummer placed her 3-year-old daughter in childcare at the YMCA in October so that she could find work. If she doesn’t find a job, she may lose her eligibility for childcare as part of the welfare-to-work provisions that go into effect in January of next year.
However, if Plummer does find a job, she also runs the risk of losing her childcare. Working a full-time job at minimum wage, Plummer would gross about $1,280 per month. This would put her in competition with families who make less.
The catch-22 is not unfamiliar to Maya Rodriguez, community resource specialist for West County First 5 Center, whose job it is to help parents like Lazar and Plummer find care for their children.
“It is really hard to meet the requirements [for subsidized childcare],” Rodriguez said. Parents often must weigh finding a job with the risk of losing their spot in line.
“There used to be more assistance through the childcare council,” Rodriguez said.
With the cost of childcare in Contra Costa ranging from $800 to $1200 per month, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, low-income families must get childcare subsidies to maintain employment.
Numerous studies suggest that investments in childcare yield positive economic returns. A 2004 report produced by MIT, reviewed these studies and found that taxpayers receive a 16 percent return on investment for monies spend on pre-kindergarten education.
“Failing to invest sufficiently in quality early care and education shortchanges taxpayers because the return on investment is greater than many other economic development options,” wrote the report’s authors.
The California Child Care Resource and Referral Network estimates that $1 billion has been slashed from childcare in the past five years, resulting in the loss of 111,095 subsidized slots statewide. Though the state has included some increases to the childcare budget in the next year, federal cuts could go even deeper.
Lazar said she is looking forward to when her daughter can go to school full-time. Once her daughter starts kindergarten, Lazar hopes to get her cosmetician’s license and start making more income.
Until then, she has no choice but to wait.