High costs paint working parents into corner

Sharon Keyes, a single mother from South San Francisco, juggles two jobs and a full load of classes in order to secure a future for herself and her 7-year-old daughter amid the Bay Area’s astronomical cost of living.

Working graveyard and daytime shifts and rushing to weekend classes at City College of San Francisco, she has carefully built a schedule that makes the most of every hour. But without reliable child care, her plans would collapse entirely.

Though she’s struggling to make ends meet, Keyes, 38, is considered lucky. She receives a state subsidy of $800 toward her $1,200 monthly child care costs. The money goes directly to her parents, who watch her daughter overnight while Keyes works as a substance abuse counselor for women in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Keyes pays out-of-pocket for afternoon care at her daughter’s private Christian school, where a scholarship program covers her tuition.

Next to housing, child care is the largest expense facing San Mateo County families, said George Archambeau, interim executive director for the nonprofit Child Care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County.

“The average cost of infant care is $833 a month,” he said. “The average housing cost is over $1,600 a month. Families are spending a huge portion of their monthly income on housing and child care.”

The demand for subsidized child care in San Mateo County is huge. With only 10,000 slots available, there are currently 4,500 children of all ages on the waiting list, Archambeau said. To qualify for any amount of help, a family of four must earn no more than $4,031 a month.

It leaves thousands of families who are not poor enough to be eligible for subsidized child care, but are still living in poverty. Keyes, who earns up to $2,200 a month between her night job as a substance-abuse counselor and another part-time job as an advocate for the homeless, is quickly becoming one. When she recently worked overtime, her child care subsidy immediately shrank.

“If I make a few dimes more, I’m subject to being phased out of my child care,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22. The more I make, the more I get taken from me.”

Just to get to the top of the waiting list, some parents — including Keyes, who was working temporary jobs at the time — go on welfare for a short time.

It isn’t just subsidized care that’s chronically short on the Peninsula, Archambeau said. Consumers have also identified critical shortages in care during nontraditional hours, for infants and for families who don’t qualify for subsidies but are still considered low-income.

To get by, parents rely on friends and family, or rearrange their work schedules.

“You have parents where one will work the day shift and one will work the night shift, which really stresses out the family,” Archambeau said. “Or a family member just doesn’t work, which also creates economic challenges.”

Despite addition of hundreds of new child care openings, shortage persists

Since 1990, the demand for quality, affordable child care in San Mateo County has skyrocketed

26 percent, according to statistics from the Child care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County.

SmartKids, San Mateo County’s Child Care Facilities Expansion Fund, has eased the crunch somewhat by creating 900 new child care slots since 2002, said Michelle Blakely, a program specialist with First 5 San Mateo County, which provides ongoing funding for the program.

SmartKids has also received funding from the Human Services Agency of San Mateo County, the Peninsula Quality Fund for Early Childhood Education, state and federal grants and corporate donors.

The program increases the slots at both licensed family-run day care centers and child care centers through facilities improvements and staff support. The child care centers are also required to do their own fundraising for the improvements.

In 2004, San Mateo took the lead in the county to support Preschool for All.

A collaborative effort among First 5, the San Mateo County Office of Education and eight other agencies, Preschool for All’s goal is to have each child in San Mateo County enter school prepared to succeed, Blakely said.

With help from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the county has invested more than $10 million to launch the program. It currently serves close to 772 children in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and several neighborhoods in Redwood City — including the low-income Fair Oaks area.

Working to survive

Thousands of Bay Area residents live in poverty despite working full time. The Examiner looks at the choices they make to pay for necessities.

Monday: Introduction

Tuesday: Health care

Wednesday: Housing

Thursday: Transportation

Today: Child care

tbarak@examiner.com

Bay Area NewsLocal

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