California Has a Child Care Crisis. How Finding It – and Paying for It – Can Be a Nightmare

Editor’s note: This story was first published by the Fresno Bee on June 22, 2022 and written by Claudia Boyd-Barrett.

Amanda Tripp burst into tears when she found out late last year that her daughter’s child care provider, exhausted by the coronavirus pandemic, was closing the daycare she ran out of her home. Tripp had depended on the experienced caregiver for almost a year, and felt devastated that her 16-month-old would have to adapt to someone new. Saying goodbye to the daycare seemed like the most difficult experience Tripp had faced as a first-time mom.

Until she tried to find Ellie a new slot.

“I didn’t know it was going to be that hard,” said Tripp, who works full-time in sales in west-central Fresno, and like many parents relies on child care to be able to work. “I started calling around and everywhere was full, and they were telling me, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard a lot of places have closed.’”

Child care providers, many already struggling before COVID, have been hit hard over the past two years. Plummeting demand for child care, increased cleaning and supply costs, virus safety measures and capacity restrictions created a perfect storm of stressors, said providers and experts familiar with the child care field. Over 10,000 child care programs either temporarily or permanently closed during the pandemic, according to a recent report by Children Now, a children’s advocacy group. Newly released data from the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network points to a loss of 18,000 licensed child care slots across the state between 2019 and 2021, adding to an already acute shortage of spaces.

“I don’t know if I can convey enough the dire situation the state is in,” said Stacy Hae Lim Lee, senior managing director for early childhood at Children Now, a children’s advocacy organization. “The people who are in the (child care) field right now are just devastated. You can hear it in their voices that they’re just barely getting by, and they’re seeing all of their friends close their businesses or struggle, as well.”

Finding child care is only half the problem for many parents. The other challenge is paying for it. That’s especially the case in Fresno County, where 1 in 5 people live in poverty, almost double the state average. Maria Penalosa of Reedley said she wishes she could send her four children to a licensed child care facility. But as it is she’s spending more than half of her $15-an-hour earnings from her full-time warehouse job to pay a friend to watch 1 year-old-son Oscar during the day, and her 5-, 8- and 12-year-old children after school. She and her husband, a farmworker, have to keep expenses low, only buying basic foods and limiting spending on clothing and shoes. “Sometimes the kids ask, ‘Can’t we get a frozen pizza?’” she said in Spanish. “I say no, if I buy you that you won’t have any lunch.”

Before the pandemic, full-time licensed child care for a baby in Fresno County cost between $8,930 and $13,206 a year, depending on whether it was in a home or at a center, according to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network. Care for a full-time preschooler cost between $8,334 and $9,290. A family making the county’s medium household income of $57,109 with a baby and preschooler in full-time care would have to spend around a third of their pre-tax income on child care. According to Children Now, child care costs are the highest household expense in nearly every California county, surpassing housing.

The state does offer child care subsidies. To qualify for subsidized care, a family of three can earn no more than $78,135 annually before taxes. However, most of those at the higher-income range don’t get subsidies because the lowest-income families are prioritized and there’s nowhere near enough funds to cover everyone. So while millions of families are eligible for subsidies or low-cost state-funded preschool programs, only a fraction actually receive it, a 2017 analysis by the California Budget and Policy Center found. The Central Valley Children’s Services Network is one of several agencies in Fresno County that maintain a list of child care subsidy applicants. Some remain on the list for months or even years. One of them is Penalosa, who said she’s been on the waiting list for the past three years.

Even for people with incomes too high to qualify for subsidies, child care is expensive. California considers child care affordable if it costs 7% or less of a family’s income. A family with an infant in a child care home and a preschooler in a center would need to make at least $341,000 a year to meet that definition, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

Fresno County has lost at least 80 in-home child care providers since the start of the pandemic, with the number of these businesses declining from 572 in February 2020, to 492 today. On the surface that’s not terrible, said Andrea Cervantes, program manager at the Central Valley Children’s Services Network, a state-funded non-profit organization that helps Fresno families find child care. But when you consider that even before the pandemic fewer than a quarter of Fresno families looking for licensed child care were able to find it, any loss of providers is a blow, she said. For parents of babies and toddlers the challenge is even greater, she said. The county has only 18% of the slots needed to meet demand for this age group.

“The fact is, our demand for childcare far outweighs the supply that we have,” said Cervantes. “There’s definitely frustration that we hear from families, especially those that are calling for the third or fourth time looking for a list (of providers).”

California’s Central Valley is one of the most difficult regions in the state to find child care. More than half of Central Valley counties in 2019 had fewer than one licensed child care spot available for every five children ages 0 through 12 with working parents, according to information from KidsData. These counties included Fresno, Merced, Madera, Stanislaus, Tulare and Kern. That’s 20% worse than California as a whole, which has one slot available per four children with working parents.

There is a bright spot for the Central Valley as a whole in data released this year by the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network. Child care providers in the region appear to have weathered the pandemic better than the state as a whole, with the supply of slots dropping 1% compared with 2% across California between 2019 and 2021, and the overall supply of home-based slots actually increasing by 1%. Gemma DiMatteo, research director for the network said government emergency stipends and supplies given to providers, along with a waiver of certain payment policies, likely helped keep many child care businesses afloat. Nevertheless, the overall decline is still a blow given that child care availability has been dropping since the Great Recession, particularly in home-based day cares (officially called family child care homes), a vital source of support for low-income parents and those working nontraditional hours, such as farmworkers.

“These percentages might not seem really big, but California is a huge state, so even these percentages equate to almost 18,000 less spaces for children,” she said. “And it’s not like we were starting off in a good place where we had a space available for every child.”

Between 2008 and 2019, the number of in-home child care businesses dropped by 30%. In-home daycare operators are more likely than child care centers to offer evening, weekend and even overnight care, and are often less expensive and more conveniently located for parents. But they are also vulnerable to economic shocks, and many business owners struggle to make ends meet, especially if they serve families receiving state child care subsidies. Reimbursement rates from the state are too low to cover the cost of care, providers and advocates said.

“It’s extremely low paying and high stress,” said DiMatteo. “A lot of (in-home providers) get burned out, and often they could go work at Target and they make the same or more money, and they get breaks and sick time.”

Trying to Stay Afloat

TRYING TO STAY AFLOAT Doris Easley closed her home daycare in north Fresno in the middle of 2021 after losing her last client. She served eight children before the pandemic. All the children left because of parents’ fears about virus exposure, or because they were working from home or lost work and could no longer afford child care. For a while, Easley kept up her insurance and her first-aid certificate, but eventually it made no sense to keep her license active. Business “just kind of withered,” she said. “I was at a standstill.”

Another Fresno child care provider, Johanna Vazquez, almost closed when her full-time assistant quit because she was worried about getting sick. Vazquez persuaded her husband to leave his job at a custom window company and help her take care of kids instead. She said she’s grateful she was able to stay afloat while many other providers in her area closed. Even so, her family’s income tanked as parents cut back on child care. She and her husband stopped contributing to their retirement accounts and kids’ college funds, and fell behind on their mortgage payments, she said.

Meanwhile, some Fresno County child care centers said they were ready to welcome back the full number of children they had before the pandemic but were struggling to find enough teachers, even though demand for care was strong. The Herron House Preschool Center in Selma was short four teachers across its four sites, said site supervisor Susan Lund.

“Trying to find qualified staff that really want to work full-time, that’s been one of our biggest challenges,” she said. “We want to bring the kids back, but we need the staffing.”

Reading and Beyond, which runs state-funded preschool programs at two centers in Fresno, also was recruiting teachers. Executive Director Luis Santana said the state’s reimbursement rates make it hard for the organization to compete with the higher salaries offered by school districts. Reading and Beyond recently showed a waitlist of between 10 and 15 children for each site. Santana said he expected demand to grow further as more parents return to the workplace and need the extended care — 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — his centers provide.

Informal Child Care Options

Like Penalosa, many parents unable to find or afford licensed child care turn to informal options, such as relatives, friends or neighbors. If they’re lucky enough to obtain a subsidy, the state allows them to apply to use it to pay a relative or other unlicensed (also called “licensed exempt”) caregiver. But unlicensed providers usually don’t have training in early childhood development and education, and don’t have to pass the safety and quality inspections required of licensed caregivers (although non-relatives getting subsidies do have to undergo a background check). That puts children at risk for receiving subpar or even unsafe care, experts said.

Some county organizations, including the Central Valley Children’s Services Network and the Office of Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Early Care & Education department, are trying to fill the gap by working to recruit and train new licensed home daycare providers. Much of this is being done through a countywide initiative called “Cradle to Career” aimed at improving support for Fresno County’s children at all stages of their development. The Central Valley Children’s Services Network also offers educational materials and training to people providing child care informally by reaching out to those known “license exempt” caregivers receiving subsidies and also to the community through flyers, social media and the organization’s website, said Cervantes. One avenue is through a free playgroup called “Kaleidoscope Play and Learn” where family, friend and neighbor caregivers can bring children ages birth to 5. At the playgroups, trained facilitators demonstrate developmentally appropriate activities that caregivers can do at home. The playgroup moved online during the pandemic, Cervantes said. Surveys of playgroup participants show caregivers overwhelmingly report an increased understanding of how to provide quality child care and encourage positive child development.

More Changes Needed

Tripp ultimately managed to find a licensed child care provider for her daughter, but it required creativity — and gumption. The new mom started asking everyone she met with young children what they did for child care.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, you have a child, who do you use? Do you like them?’ And a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, my mom, my sister.’ I’m like, ‘Can they watch my child, too?’” Tripp recalled. “You just get kind of desperate.”

Just as she was beginning to worry she’d have to quit work to stay home with her daughter, Tripp found a home daycare provider with a vacancy, after calling an old high school acquaintance for advice. She said she’s frustrated and surprised that the search was so difficult.

“Something needs to change,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers have moved to bolster California’s child care system during the pandemic. Last year, the governor signed a plan than includes $2.7 billion to expand free, transitional kindergarten to all the state’s 4-year-olds by 2025-26, and adds 200,000 subsidized child care slots over the next several years. The state also reached an agreement in June with the Child Care Providers United union to raise reimbursement rates for providers of subsidized child care by at least 15%. Advocates and child care planners in Fresno and beyond are calling on the state to do more, including much higher increases in funding for subsidized child care and compensation for child care workers to encourage more to join and remain in the field. Lee with Children Now said California should commit to funding child care for all children from birth, much like it funds the public school system.

“There’s so much research in the last 30 years that has pointed to the importance of investing earlier in children, from birth and even during pregnancy, and how that can really help create a positive trajectory for the child,” she said. “Yet our investments don’t reflect that.”