Summer child care can be vexing and costly for parents
Summertime is a great time for children, liberated from school and extra-curricular schedules and free to enjoy the long lazy days. But for working parents who need care for their youngsters, summer is no day at the beach. Many are faced with the dilemma of either paying a substantial price for day care, pre-school, or other activities, or giving up good jobs that help pay the bills and put food on the table. According to both working parents who are facing this quandary and professionals in the child-care field, there are no easy answers.
After The Times published a sampling of local child-care resources several weeks ago, an Oak Bluffs mother of two called to say that although there are many options, none were affordable enough for her. Preferring not to give her name, she said that a few months after she gave birth to her second child she began to explore child-care arrangements so she could return to her full-time job.
The fact that she had an infant made potential costs higher, since those few day care providers and other centers that take children under one year old need to charge a higher fee for them since babies require more staff time. She also discovered that most locations have only limited slots for such young children. She needed care for her pre-schooler as well. After estimating total child-care costs and discovering that she and her husband would not qualify for assistance because their combined income was too high, the mother decided that quitting her job was the only practical answer.
Later, she came up with the idea of doing clerical and secretarial work at home. Now the enterprise is so successful she is thinking of hiring another mother to work with her. With flexible hours and a home office, both could care for their young children while making a good income.
This mother's story is all too familiar, reflecting the quandary countless Islanders face when they try to balance work and family. Many find to their regret and frustration that they can't have both and still make ends meet. In this case, the cloud had a silver lining since the mother was able to find another income-producing activity, but this is not often the case.
Lori Pinkham of Vineyard Haven is sticking with her part-time job, although she realizes that after paying for care for her three young children, she barely makes any money. This is especially true in summer when none of the three youngsters is in school and the medical office where she works is busier than ever.
"I stay out of commitment to my boss," says Ms. Pinkham who enjoys her job as office manager and medical assistant at Vineyard Gynecology. But she also admits that working may be financially impractical. "Once I pay for day care and gas to get to work and pick up the kids I think I may be losing a dollar or two an hour," she said.
During the summer her sons Reilly, seven, and Zander, five, attend a "pool camp" several full days a week. Skyler, one and a half, goes to family day care for which Ms. Pinkham receives some financial aid. The family includes a teenage girl, Kylee. Ms. Pinkham's partner sometimes has less than full-time work and the couple cannot afford health insurance for the family, she said.
Some mothers The Times talked to continue to work because they get benefits whose price would be prohibitive if purchased privately. One lucky mother of a teenager and a baby said she was able to leave her part-time town office job because her husband could receive family health insurance through his place of employment. After asking not to be identified, she said she was happy to have the opportunity to stay home with her new baby and that she'd rather do that than pay money to leave the child with a stranger, especially since costs for infant care are higher than those for older children. "I probably wouldn't have been able to make any money, just pocket change," she said. "And I'd rather raise her than have someone else do it."
She admitted that the loss of her income has made a dent in family finances, "but I can still put bread on the table."
Marney Toole, coordinator of the Family Network Family Center program, said that often it is the ages-old neighborly ways that work when families need help with their kids. According to Ms. Toole, parents who visit the center with their children often meet others in similar situations and work out informal shared child-care arrangements. In some cases a mother with an older preschooler will offer to take care of another mother's baby in her home, or several parents whose children are close in age will trade off taking responsibility for all of them during a morning or afternoon. The Family Center, a cheerful facility at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, offers a free drop-in program for parents and children through age six. Expectant parents are welcome too. Along with a number of special activities there is opportunity for children to play with others and parents to network and trade ideas.
Ms. Toole said that a number of couples will stagger their job hours so that one can stay home with the child while the other heads to the workplace. Those with flexible hours or the self-employed with home offices are especially able to make such arrangements. "They don't see so much of each other, but they share that role so they don't have that added expense," she said.
Although she is very sympathetic to the plight of parents, Ms. Toole also emphasized that child-care workers have their own difficulties. "The real bind is that they work very hard, they do continuing education, they're always working to create healthy environments where children can grow and learn, they invest a lot of time in their professional development," said Ms. Toole. "I think there's a real misperception that you just drop kids off in a child-friendly environment and they play, and adults are there watching in case something happens.
"But there's a lot of thought that goes into it. They're guiding the development of these children and they do it very thoughtfully. They really are devoted and deserve to be compensated for the level of professionalism they have."
Ms. Toole said she knows that the cost of child care is prohibitive for some families and she understands fully when parents get angry about the high prices. But at the same time she feels that child-care providers are undervalued. "I just wish for working families there were more opportunities for subsidies," she said.
The Times learned through several interviews that assistance programs are complicated to navigate, and applicants often give up or are turned away for a number of reasons. Once a lucky family does receive child-care assistance, the amount varies from program to program, individual to individual. Like airline tickets, the tuition fee for child-care facilities can vary from one child to another, depending on what type or level of financial help their families are receiving. Along with federal, state, and local assistance programs, Vineyard churches and community groups often pitch in to help needy parents with child-care payments.
Most pre-schools and child-care centers do active community fundraising and have "wish lists" for donations of materials and equipment to keep their overall costs down and provide some subsidies for enrollees. "Wherever you go you're not actually paying the full cost of child care," Ms. Toole commented. Nonetheless, the price of care remains a financial stumbling block for many. And no matter the price, the fact is that during the summer months when parents are often working more time, fewer child-care resources are available. About half of the Island's 11 pre-schools and child-care centers close in summer and family day care providers sometimes close or cut back their hours.
Debby Milne, veteran director of Early Childhood Programs at Martha's Vineyard Community Services, has seen the problem grow over the years. Although a number of financial assistance programs exist, it is often hard for parents to get the help they need, she said. "The trick is you have to be eligible," Ms. Milne said. "Every year or month the requirements get more strict and the documentation gets more lengthy. "It's a fairly involved process to access the funding. It's harder and harder to access the funding because of all the documentation you need."
Ms. Milne said that in most cases families must prove residency, provide birth certificates for their children, have a valid social security number, have pay stubs for proof of income, be able to demonstrate any child support revenue, and more. Even after the laborious procedure families sometimes are asked for additional documentation, or find they do not meet guidelines in some way.
Ms. Milne said some programs require a parent or couple to have a very low income to receive assistance to begin with. But once on assistance they can continue to receive benefits even as their income increases until reaching a cut-off; during this time the family's portion of the child-care payment rises proportionately with their income. In one example she cited, a family of two must make $30,378 or less in order to qualify for approximately $2,500 in child-care funds per month. However, that family could continue to get some level of assistance, which would decline as their income rose, up to a $51,643 limit. A family with two adults and two children could enter the program with an annual income of $44,674 or under, and would not be dropped until yearly combined income hit $76,000.
Local child-care facilities had long waiting lists in the past, Ms. Milne said, but this is no longer true. She believes the change is because more and more young families are moving off-Island due to the high cost of living here. And when it comes to paying for child care, parents are trying to come up with inexpensive, informal options or keep the kids home as they struggle to get by.
"If you have two children in child care, it doesn't pay to work," said Ms. Milne.
"The issue is not something local communities can solve on their own," said Ann Palches, Early Childhood Coordinator for Vineyard public schools, who also has extensive experience working with young children. "We're not providing child care as a country, we're not honoring the fact that parents have to work."
Ms. Palches said the responsibility lies with state and national government to make policy and provide resources so that child care can be accessible to all. Employers also have a role, she said, and could improve the situation by offering flexible hours, helping to subsidize community child care, or providing working parents with stipends specifically for child-care costs. Like Ms. Toole, Ms. Palches stressed that child-care workers are often unappreciated and underpaid, although parents perceive that costs are too high. "People think of it as babysitting," said Ms. Palches. "It's not babysitting. It's so much more - it's education."
According to Ms. Palches, small communities like the Vineyard do receive some government funds to help families facing high costs of caring for their children, "but it doesn't begin to meet the need." And because these resources are generally income-linked so they are available only to the most needy, leaving out those families who make decent incomes but still are having a hard time making ends meet. She has heard many mothers say they cannot afford to work.
Ms. Palches said that the widespread difficulty in obtaining affordable child care in the United States has an impact on the economy and the culture itself.
"We're saying to moms and dads 'one of you has to stay at home.' How is that good for our economy? Our culture, our government, doesn't honor families."
"Small towns and even big cities cannot come up with all the resources to support families," she said. "Government has to help, employers have to help."
Ms. Palches pointed out that the United States does not support families as well as do many other countries, including those not as rich. She believes that despite its importance, child care is not a priority for this country.
"It's an issue I believe is really impossible for the Island community to solve on its own," said Ms. Palches. "It has to be on the national agenda.
"The fact that this is an issue on Martha's Vineyard where there's a fair amount of privilege means there's probably more of an issue in other even needier communities."