‘It’s like a nightmare you never wake up from:’ California parents wait years for subsidized daycare
Tamara Hudson’s workday routine typically starts before 4 a.m., when the bleary-eyed single mother rouses her 2-year-old son in their Redwood City home, wraps him in a blanket and places him in her Honda for the first of her 40-mile round trips to the closest daycare provider she can afford.
After dropping him off in Fremont, Hudson heads back to Redwood City for her 6 a.m. shift assembling medical parts. In the afternoon, she drives back to Fremont to pick up him and by the time she gets home — 6 p.m. if she’s lucky with Bay Area traffic — she’s depleted.
Like thousands of other working parents in California, Hudson is on a waiting list for state-subsidized daycare. But as her wait stretches into its second year, she sees little change in her future. Unlike other waiting lists for social programs like Section 8, which can operate on a first-come, first-served basis, the waiting list for a daycare subsidy serves the lowest-income, neediest families first, so parents who earn even minimal salaries are unlikely to move up.
“You could sit on the waiting list for 5, 10, 15 years. If you’re making $2,000 a month you might stay on there forever,” says Eric Peterson, the director of client services and public policy at the child care referral agency Bananas, which contracts with the state to administer child care subsidies in Alameda County. “We are seeing working families 100 percent stuck.”
Some parents have become so discouraged that they’ve taken to calling the long paper line for the for a daycare subsidy the “no hope list.” While they wait, they often devise elaborate workarounds. Some spend hours on the road ferrying their kids to friends and family. A few quit their jobs because the cost of non-subsidized care is too high. Others resort to tenuous arrangements in non-licensed facilities with unreliable caregivers.
“This has devastated people’s lives,” says Clarissa Doutherd, executive director of Parent Voices Oakland, part of a statewide group that advocates for affordable child care. “I have spoken to parents who lost their job waiting for [subsidized] child care, who lost their housing because they lost their jobs, who are experiencing food insecurity because they became economically unstable due to a lack of child care.”
In California, roughly 2 million children are eligible for subsidized child care, which is available as vouchers or open slots at daycare centers. To be eligible for a subsidy, a family of four must have an income below $6,719 per month, or $80,623 annually. But anyone making that much, experts says, is likely to stay on the list forever.
Just one out of every nine eligible children –about 228,100–are actually enrolled in full-time subsidized care programs, according to the California Budget & Policy Center. That’s because there isn’t enough state and federal funding to serve everyone, says Kristin Schumacher, a senior policy analyst at the center.
It’s hard to know how many families remain on the waiting list for subsidized child care. The state Department of Education used to collect data on the number of children on the waiting list, but funding for that program was cut in 2011. Jennifer Greppi, the statewide lead chapter organizer for Parent Voices, estimates there are 500,000 families on the list across California. And in Alameda County alone, there are nearly 7,000 children waiting for subsidized child care, according to the Alameda County Early Care and Education Program.