I’m a single mother of two-year-old twin boys. Five months ago, I was laid off from my job. I struggled to make it on 100 dollars of unemployment a week. Bills piled up. My debt was growing. And a clock was ticking: if I didn’t find a job in two weeks, I’d lose my child care assistance.
I gave it my all. I scoured job lists, sent out resumes and told everyone I knew that I was looking for work. After 14 days, my deadline hit and there wasn’t a job in sight. So just at the moment I needed it most, my assistance was cut off.
But I’m scrappy and don’t give up easily. I cobbled together $175 to pay for two days of child care a week so I could step up the hunt. A month later, I landed a temporary job. My child care assistance started up again. Things were looking up.
Only two months into the job, I got laid off again. This time, my child care assistance was terminated immediately. My heart sank … but I threw myself into another intense search. Day after day, I kept at it. Several weeks later, I started a new job and resubmitted my application for child care assistance. But I was told I no longer qualify. No reason was given. All I know is that I’m not getting assistance.
It’s been a roller coaster. But I’m grateful to have work. Every month, I patch together $720 for my sons’ child care. My boys are in a safe place and they’re doing well. But, at the end of the month, after paying for rent, food, gas and other items, I’m left with almost nothing. At night, I lay awake determined to build a bright future.
–F. Guevara, Nevada
Guevara is not alone. The average cost for two children to go to a child care center is greater than the median rent in every state. And costs continue to rise. For low-income families, these costs can be devastating–and assistance is often limited, or completely unavailable. According to a state-by-state report released today by the National Women’s Law Center, families in 27 states are better off under one or more child care policies in 2013 than in 2012, but lost ground in nearly half the states. Although policies showed improvement this past year, the data is still sobering: just three states meet the federally recommended benchmark for payment rates for child care providers, which limits families’ child care options. And in many states, long waiting lists prevent low-income families from receiving any help paying for care.
We hear from low-income parents like Guevara who are struggling to pay for child care. Recently we learned of a single mother working full-time who’s on a waiting list for child care assistance in the Midwest. Her estimated wait is two years. Others describe cutting back on food, skipping trips to the doctor and falling behind on rent to try to meet child care expenses. Mothers improvise make-shift child care with neighbors and family members pitching in. When these arrangements fall through, parents scramble to fill in the gaps. Some have had no choice but to keep an older child home from school periodically to care for younger siblings, in order to keep their jobs. Unemployed parents describe the precarious balancing act of going on job interviews without a safety net of child care assistance. One mother described her anguish at canceling a job interview when she couldn’t find anyone to care for her two young children.
We also hear positive stories of families who have good-quality child care because they get financial assistance. They’re able to concentrate at work knowing their children are safe and thriving in a learning environment. But too many families lack the help they need to get safe, reliable and affordable child care and gain a financial footing. We can do better.
And that’s why the Center supports President Obama’s early education initiative, which would expand high-quality early learning opportunities for children–from birth through age three–by increasing investments to expand the availability and strengthen the quality of child care and Early Head Start. The President’s blueprint also would provide low- and moderate-income four-year-old children with high-quality preschool.
Less than a third of four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality public or private preschool. Millions of children are losing out on the chance to succeed simply because of their economic background or where they happen to live. Studies show that without a strong start, students are at greater risk of performing poorly in school, dropping out, making poor choices that affect their health and future, and failing to become productive adults. Those poor outcomes are costing the country money.
The stakes for children and the entire country are too high to put this initiative on hold. Let’s get behind it and give children the opportunity to learn and develop the skills they need to succeed in school and in life, provide parents the support and reassurance they need to work, and enable our nation to prosper both now and in the future.
Blank is director of child care and early learning for the National Women’s Law Center.
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