Alexandria, a pudgy 10-month-old with pink bows clipped to her tiny ponytails, is waiting. Propped up on a pillow in the tidy living room of her apartment in Palm Beach, she’s calmly swigging warm formula while her mother gets ready for work. Soon she’ll be buckled into her car seat and whisked off. To where? She must wait to find out. Most days she goes to a lady’s house a few minutes away, but sometimes she winds up at her uncle’s apartment or with a friend of her mom’s. If she could, Alexandria might tell you that what she’s really waiting for is one safe place to be every day while her mother works. And she might have to wait a very long time.
Alexandria is on a waiting list for subsidized care along with more than 45,000 other children in Florida and almost half a million around the country. Countless families would welcome a break in childcare costs. Working parents now spend more on childcare than they do on college tuition, food, car payments or, in many states, rent. But even to make it onto a waiting list, families must meet strict income criteria set by states to sift out all but the neediest of needy families. Alexandria’s mother, Denise, for instance, is raising four children while working full-time as an assistant case worker for a family service agency. Having earned just $19,000 last year, Denise is eligible for aid–and she made sure to request it right after her daughter was born. But still they wait.
Across the country, families in dire financial situations qualify for help–but don’t get it because the funds aren’t there. Of the more than 15 million children entitled to childcare help nationwide in 2000, only one out of seven received it, according to the Washington-based advocacy group the Center for Law and Social Policy. The government has been offering some of the poorest working families subsidies to care for their children since at least 1974. Yet, while both the number of women in the workforce and the price of care relative to wages have shot up since then, government spending on daycare hasn’t risen accordingly. And the backup appears to be worsening. Because there has been no increase in funding for childcare since the Bush Administration took power, some 300,000 children are expected to lose childcare assistance by 2010.
What happens to these babies, toddlers and school-aged kids while their parents work? For Alexandria, the usual setup is far from ideal. The woman who cares for her is elderly, leaves the TV on for much of the day and charges $150 a week, which strains Denise’s tight budget. Perhaps most frustrating, she’s sometimes unavailable, as she is today. Denise has a plan B: Alexandria’s uncle agreed to look after the baby this morning. But when she calls him from her car as she heads toward his apartment, he doesn’t answer his phone.
What’s a woman who’s late for work to do when her baby sitters go AWOL? Denise pulls into a gas station to ponder this question. If she brings Alexandria to work, which begins with three hours of driving to pick up a child in foster care and bring him to visit his mother, she risks losing her job. But she doesn’t know any other trustworthy baby sitters. And the choice between endangering her job or her baby is an easy one. So, as she’s done on more than one occasion in the past, she heaves a big sigh and drives off to work with her infant daughter in the back seat.
Other children on Florida’s waiting list, like little 1-and-a-half-year-old Valerie, a smiley toddler whose dark hair is in a pageboy, go to decent preschools at great expense to their parents. Four out of ten single mothers who pay for childcare spend half or more of their income on it, and many can only afford the dicier options. But Valerie’s mom, Glabedys, is pleased with the center where her daughter spends her days. When she drops Valerie off at Busy Bees Pre-School, housed in two toy-filled buildings in Wilton Manors, she runs off to play instead of crying and clinging to her mother, as she used to when she was left with neighbors. She’s been learning about colors and shapes. And she clearly likes her teachers.