During the Great Recession, drastic state budget cuts left hundreds of thousands of low-income parents in California with no access to child-care subsidies that would make it possible for them to hold jobs. But if voters approve Measure A on the June ballot, Alameda County would become the first to tackle this hidden crisis, which is having a “cataclysmic impact on families’ lives,” said Clarissa Doutherd, Alameda County director of the community organization Parent Voices.
Measure A would increase the county sales tax by half a percent to fund child care for more families, especially homeless families, and to increase the training and income of caregivers, who often work at poverty wages. The measure would generate about $140 million annually.
Doutherd said 12,000 Alameda County families are now on the waiting list for state-funded child-care subsidies. “Over time, the situation has gotten worse,” she said, noting that more families have become homeless. “I’ve been getting calls from shelters asking about child care because the mothers couldn’t get jobs because they had no child care, so then they couldn’t get housing. So, families are just generally getting stuck.”
Subsidies are essential for low-wage parents: Child care in a licensed center or home-based program in Alameda County costs a third or more of what a parent earns at a $15-an-hour job. “If they can’t get child-care subsidies, they can’t work or go to school,” said home-based child-care provider Carolyn Carpenter. Or parents with jobs arrange makeshift care, sometimes forced to leave young children in situations ranging from unhappy to dangerous.
Doutherd said that two years ago, “We started showing up at the Board of Supervisors, working with staff, providing case studies,” asking for county funds to address the child-care crisis. They presented testimonials from parents like Tasha Buffin, whose daughter attends a Head Start program that operates only two and a half hours a day. Without full-day care, Buffin said, “How am I supposed to get off aid? I want to work, but I can’t take a job until I know that I will have time to work.”
Oakland parent Rachel Harrelson has been speaking at supervisors’ meetings and rallying other parents. “When my daughter was born, I was working in a crisis clinic first as a receptionist, later as program coordinator,” Harrelson recalled. “But I couldn’t afford market rate for child care. I was fortunate — a family friend had a home-style day care and charged me less.”
At first, Harrelson split the cost of care with her baby’s father. But when he stopped paying, she said, “I had to give up my apartment and move in with friends,” because she couldn’t afford both rent and child care.
County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who has been a champion for child care since her time in the California Assembly (2000-’06), said that when parents came to the supervisors for child-care funding, “the board was sympathetic, but we don’t have that kind of money. This has generally been a state responsibility.”
Chan started working with Parent Voices and the Service Employees International Union, which represents child-care providers, to find a funding source. Supervisor Nate Miley has also been campaigning for early childhood programs. “My interest was that if we can provide the necessary nurturing for youngsters before they hit kindergarten, it’s been shown that can help determine their future success and contribution to society,” Miley said.
Every county supervisor held “listening sessions” on this issue in their districts, Chan said, and the vote to place the measure on the ballot was unanimous.
Chan added that she has put some of her discretionary funding into a pilot program to create a model for providing child care for homeless families. “It’s often pretty difficult for homeless mothers to get kids to school,” she explained. “These kids are really disadvantaged, so we have a special obligation to help them. And there are so many more homeless children now.”
The campaign in Alameda County is being “closely watched nationally,” Doutherd said. Last September, federal lawmakers introduced the “Child Care for Working Families Act,” which would provide funding to limit families’ child-care spending to 7 percent of their income, as well as increase training and compensation for child-care providers. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
Besides expanding families’ access to child care, Measure A includes a goal of raising child-care workers’ pay to $15 an hour. “As hard as child-care workers work, many still find themselves in poverty,” said Oakland child-care provider Nancy Harvey. “That’s just not ethical.”
Doutherd pointed out that low pay for child-care workers “disproportionately affects women of color,” who are overrepresented in the child-care workforce.
The problem is that many parents can’t afford fees high enough to cover a living wage for child-care providers, Carpenter said. She said she’s participating in a task force that’s “looking at how to close that gap.” It’s one of several task forces working on ways to implement Measure A.
Increasing the sales tax sounds like a hard sell, but in preliminary polling, Measure A received 72 percent support, Chan said. It needs 67 percent to pass.
Child-care provider Harvey said, “We can be a shining example to the whole state, then moving out to the rest of the nation.”
The campaign for Measure A will hold an official launch event, complete with children’s activities, on Saturday, March 24, at the San Leandro Boys and Girls Club.