A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration's Cuts
Perhaps the most perverse aspect of these gratuitous cuts is that the first people to feel their blows are also the ones least able to absorb them. On a bright April afternoon, I visit Eva Rodriguez at her spacious home, where she has run a daycare center for the last seven years. Three children are seated at a table in the backyard, making pancakes out of Play-Doh beneath a poster that reads Bully Free Zone. A wooden cabinet is overflowing with art supplies that promise messy fun—glitter, paste, paints—while a nearby canopy shelters a gymnastics area with tumbling mats. During my visit, the only time I see a child cry is when they have to leave.
In the past, Rodriguez, who lives in the county seat of Hanford, has received children through Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, administered by the Kings Community Action Organization. Unlike traditional Head Start, which is pegged to the school year, the migrant program operates on the farmworkers’ season, beginning on April 29 and running through December. And unlike Head Start centers, the family care option provides more flexible hours. This is critical, as many local agricultural jobs—such as those in the packing sheds—have irregular schedules. Workers typically arrive at the job with little idea of how long they’ll be needed, and their shifts sometimes extend for well over twelve hours.
“I spent twenty years in the fields,” says Rodriguez, who came to the United States from Mexico in 1975. “So I know what it means for parents with young children. When you work in the fields, you can’t afford to pay anyone to watch them.” Back when she was a twentysomething working mother with two small children, she was forced to bring her daughter and son—then age 4 and 5—to the fields, where she would try to keep an eye on them while harvesting peaches and grapes.
“Parents are already calling,” Rodriguez adds. “Just an hour ago, a woman called looking for a spot. They’re beginning peaches next week, and she’s got two kids and a baby. She has no idea what she’s going to do.” For farmworkers, there are few quality childcare options: those who don’t bring their kids to the fields are often forced to leave them in unlicensed centers, which are frequently crowded and may offer little more than hours of uninterrupted television watching. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is a certified teacher’s assistant and, since her center is a Head Start placement site, the kids here follow a schedule that includes everything from twice-daily teeth brushing to instructional play. “We give them free food, diapers, books,” she says. “You can tell the difference when the kids get to kindergarten: they’re ready.”
This year, the childcare crisis for local farmworkers promises to be especially grave. The Kings Community Action Organization usually has ninety-six home daycare slots for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start; but the sequester—which is carving $75,000 from the program—will force them to drop up to fifty kids. At the moment, the agency is looking over its waiting list and will soon start breaking the bad news to a number of parents. “I’ve got parents calling me all the time, trying to find out if they’re going to get in,” says Veronica Muñoz, the organization’s family childcare coordinator. “All I can say to them is that they have to wait.”
One of the parents who could be dropped is Silvina Ruiz, a 42-year-old single mother of three from Nayarit, Mexico. Last year, while she packed boxes of cherries and garlic, she was able to drop off her infant son at a home daycare center through the program. At the moment, a friend is watching her son, who is now 1, but the cost of childcare—$125 every two weeks—adds significantly to her living expenses. Currently making $10 an hour, she has been forced to rent out two rooms in her three-bedroom house to make ends meet. But the strategy hardly seems sustainable: Silvina and her three sons—the others are 13 and 17—are packed into a single room.
When I ask if she has any savings, Ruiz rolls her eyes. “Economically, it doesn’t work,” she says in Spanish. “That’s why Head Start is such a big help. And it’s good for the kids. My daycare worker was great: she taught my son how to do new things, she gave him food, she spoke to him all day. What are we going to do if we don’t have this program?”
In this Nation in the News entry (video), Greg Kaufmann asks, ”After Sequestration, Where Will Poor Families Sleep?”