Child care is not a luxury, but a necessity for working mothers. It is key to both women’s and children’s success, said Mary Ignatius, who organizes women to advocate for increased public investments in subsidized child care as an organizer at Parent Voices. For low-income and many middle-income women, subsidized child care is out of reach. At this very moment, some 200,000 children are on a three-year waitlist. In the meantime, their parents struggle to make ends meet, unable to find and keep full-time work.
Shuntera Brown just finished a graveyard shift and arrived home. In a few hours she’ll start studying. She’s working on her bachelor’s degree.
“Behind that smile, Shuntera is holding back tears,” said Mary Ignatius, an organizer with Parent Voices, while showing a picture of Shuntera with her three children. “I see exhaustion in her eyes.”
A publicly subsidized child care program could make Shuntera’s life easier, said Ignatius. But it is inadequately funded and the waitlist is 200,000 families long. Parents wait three years on average to get their child into the program.
Reforming the waitlist and adding more slots in California is a top priority for Ignatius and for Parent Voices, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to arm parents in advocating for quality, accessible and affordable child care.
Child care is not a luxury, but a basic necessity for working mothers. However, for low-income and many middle-income women, it is out of reach. Preschools in California cost more than $10,000 a year in some places. For single mothers working full-time minimum wage jobs, that amounts to 50 percent of their earnings.
“Not having a fully funded subsidized child care program is bad for employers and bad for California’s economy,” said Ignatius, who for the past 10 years has organized low-income women, many of them single mothers. “It chains single mothers and their families to poverty.”
These mothers are trapped in a vicious cycle: Because they don’t have safe and stable child care, they can’t work full time. And because they can’t work full time, they can’t earn enough to support their families. And because they can’t earn enough, they need subsidized child care.
Childcare: Out of Reach for So Many
In theory, families earning less than 70 percent of California’s median income—less than $42,200 for a family of three—are entitled to receive a partial-to-full child care subsidy. Parents eligible for CalWORKs, the state’s welfare program for the poorest families, are given first priority. But in reality, child care is not guaranteed because the program falls far short of meeting the demand.
Additionally, low-income parents not eligible for CalWORKs have an even harder time securing one of the coveted spots. Due to the high demand and limited availability, a family income of just $20,000 a year could mean they never get off the waiting list.
Though access is the biggest problem for working parents, keeping one’s child care spot is yet another barrier. A mother rewarded with a promotion will lose her subsidy if her salary goes above the 70 percent state median income limit—even if it is just one penny more. Before her raise, she may have paid $300 a month for childcare. But with her modest raise—and therefore without the subsidy—she could face $1,200 a month, making it impossible to afford.
As a result, Ignatius said women are forced to make difficult decisions. Some choose to work less or turn down hard earned raises just to keep the subsidy.
“Then we see a spiraling backwards,” she said. “All of the progress they’ve made, all of the confidence they’ve built, all the work experience—it’s all put at risk because they need the subsidy and want the best for their child.”
Documenting the Effects of the Waitlist
To understand how the waitlist interferes with a family’s economic security, Parent Voices and Ignatius received a grant to document their hardships from the Women’s Foundation of California’s Economic Development and Justice Giving Circle, which has been funding women’s economic wellbeing in the Bay Area since 1999. They asked 45 women who were waitlisted for state-subsidized child care to photograph their lives. Shuntera was one of them.
The project, Waiting for Change: Mothers Advocating for Justice in Child Care,* revealed how hard the women struggle to keep it together, to do it all.
“There are real impacts, real repercussions, with not having child care,” said Ignatius.
In one photo, a Fresno mother stands in a tomato field, a bandana around her mouth. She drops her kids off with a neighbor every morning, somewhere between 2:30 and 4 a.m. She then travels for hours to get to the fields.
Armed with these stories, Parent Voices will launch a campaign in the next few months to persuade California’s legislators to reinvest in and reform subsidized child care.
Ignatius wants elected officials to see how the system is failing low-income women. And they have the Women’s Legislative Caucus on their side, which is seeking an $800 million investment in subsidized child care. What’s more, Parent Voices and the Child Care Law Center are co-sponsoring a bill—AB 2150 (Santiago and Weber)—which would ensure children receive at least 12 months of continuous child care and not be forced to yo-yo in and out of the system due to parents’ fluctuating hours and earnings.
Ignatius points to another set of photos from the project to show why this work matters. The first photo, taken while the family was waitlisted, shows a woman and her child looking tired. The woman took another shot after winning a childcare subsidy. In it, the child smiles brightly.
“You could see the light in both of their eyes again,” Ignatius said. “That’s what child care can do for a mother and a child. That’s what we want to convey and what we’re advocating for.”
* The project will launch later this year and the photos will be available on Parent Voices’ website.