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Special report: Child care's cost prolongs poverty

Special report: Child care's cost prolongs poverty

'If I have no one to watch her, I can't work; I am stuck'

  • Updated

Jasmine Bryant is about to start training to be a nursing assistant and is looking for a part-time job. But both plans will be scrapped if the single Tucson mom cannot find care for her 4-year-old.

"If I have no one to watch her, I can't work. I am stuck," says Bryant, 21, who has endured several periods of homelessness since giving birth to her daughter. "I can't afford to pay $100 to $200 a week for child care."

Her daughter, Jada, is one of nearly 6,600 kids on a state waiting list for government subsidies to help parents pay for child care. The number of Arizona children receiving subsidies has dropped by 43 percent, or nearly 20,000 children, in the past four years. The state created the waiting list in 2009 after freezing enrollment to save money.

Without subsidies or reduced rates, full-time care for a 4-year-old in a licensed Arizona center costs an average of $7,263 a year - more than Bryant's annual rent.

As metro Tucson's poverty climbed in the last decade, welfare became harder to get and the amount Arizona set aside for child-care subsidies dropped from $83 million to zero between 2008 and 2011. The rest of the money for the program is federal. Also, fewer parents are getting child support they are owed.

Those cuts happened as more than half of Tucson children are living in single-parent households, most on tight budgets. That compares with 35 percent nationwide.

"Young women in our program lack reliable friends or family supports to baby-sit," says Laurie Mazerbo, a coordinator at Our Family Services, which oversees a program for single, homeless women and their children, including Bryant and Jada.

Without subsidies, they can't afford child care, which means they can't work or attend school.

"Child care is often a major obstacle to overcome," Mazerbo says.

Growing up poor dims kids' chances of success as adults. The chaos that comes with unstable housing, spotty school attendance and limited access to nutritious food and health care makes it more likely kids will grow up to be unemployed, unhealthy and in trouble with the law - in short, the responsibility of taxpayers.

Slashing child-care subsidies exacerbates the problem, says Eric Schindler, chief executive officer at the nonprofit Child & Family Resources in Tucson.

"At the end of the day the state is doing a penny-wise, pound-foolish type of strategy," he says. "It's preventing many people from moving up the economic ladder."

Care centers at 8-year low

The waiting list for child-care subsidies has had a dramatic effect on Arizona kids.

The number of licensed care centers this year hit an eight-year low, state records show. Since 2009, licensed centers, public schools and group homes that provide child care have dropped by 269 - nearly 10 percent, the non-profit Arizona Child Care Association says. The organization represents private, licensed facilities.

Association director Bruce Liggett says the waiting list doesn't reflect the scope of children's needs in Arizona, since staying on the list requires an annual reapplication. At one time it swelled to 11,000 names, and many parents gave up and stopped reapplying.

State vouchers to cover care are automatic for two groups: kids in state custody or with some kind of state Child Protective Services involvement; and kids whose parents recently received welfare, or who are on welfare but working and enrolled in a mandatory employment and training program.

So many more kids are now part of the Child Protective Services caseload - the number of children in foster care in Pima County has spiked 33 percent since last year - that kids from poor but healthier families are shut out.

The new state budget includes an extra $9 million for child-care subsidies, plus an option to tap a $10 million contingency fund. But all that may be needed to cover the rising CPS caseload.

Kids getting subsidies decline

The average number of Arizona children receiving subsidies dropped from 45,957 per month in 2009 to the current 25,989. For the two most recent budget years, Arizona was among a minority of states that did not use any general funds for child-care subsidies, says Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center.

Blank says Arizona is one of the worst states for its child-care support, but she also noted a slide nationwide over the last decade.

"There isn't enough understanding of the importance of high-quality care of infants and toddlers," she says.

Even parents who earn a livable wage are in a tug-of-war between work obligations and their children's needs. Families earning more than 165 percent of the poverty level don't qualify for a subsidy, but many struggle to pay for child care. A single mother earning two times the poverty level in Arizona - $31,010 per year - would need to spend 28 percent of her income to keep an infant in care full-time, the group Child Care Aware America says.

Jessica Contreras, 31, says she'll quit her call-center job unless she can get a subsidy for her 6-month-old son's care. She says the full price is too high for her blended family, which also includes her husband and five other kids. A scholarship through a statewide program called First Things First expires this summer. That program is funded with a cigarette tax approved by voters in 2006, and demand for the scholarships has increased each year.

"I'm freaking out," Contreras says. "One of us is going to have to quit our job and that will put us more into poverty."

"Way short" of expectations

Arizona's child-care subsidy program dates at least to the 1970s. Federal funding helped it expand to nearly $200 million, says Liggett, a former deputy director for the Department of Economic Security who oversaw public assistance for families.

He says the program, which was expected to have spent about $107 million in the most recent fiscal year, has fallen "way short" of his expectations.

The month after the waiting list was created in 2009, the nonprofit Tucson Nursery School and Child Care Center Inc. closed its infant and toddler center and made of its staff part-time.

"It has had a tremendous impact in a very negative way," says Sherry Rollefstad, the center's executive director. "It's been hard on the parents. They need to go to work knowing their children are in a safe environment. But it takes money to run a quality center, and we are in a low-income area. If it wasn't for the waiting list I'd probably have an extra 20-plus kids in my school."

A donation from Angel Charities let the center pay off its mortgage, and scholarships from First Things First let her bring back some students and restore staff hours. Also, the increase in children involved with Child Protective Services has boosted enrollment. But she has not reopened the infant and toddler center.

"babies cost a lot of money"

Rollefstad is trying to find a scholarship for Mary Ann Hartmann, who is raising her 3-year-old granddaughter, Adonia, while working at Fry's and studying social services at Pima Community College.

Hartmann got on the state waiting list last year. She renewed her application, but so far, nothing.

"It is disheartening," says Hartmann, 56, whose annual take-home pay is about $12,000.

One requirement for her associate's degree is 250 hours of volunteer work with a social services organization. She can't do that without full-time child care.

"I'd be a lot more self-sufficient with that degree. I'd be able to make about three times what I'm earning now," she says. "Babies cost a lot of money."

Paying for food is tough

Jasmine Bryant receives child support of $420 per month, which covers rent and electricity in the transitional housing she rents through Our Family. She says paying for food is a stretch - she gets $7 in food stamps per day - and there's no money left for anything else.

Since she receives child support, she doesn't qualify for welfare or for the state's employment program that would guarantee subsidized child care. A low-wage job won't pay enough to cover the full price of child care, but staying at home with Jada is not going to help either, says Jasmine, who has a high school equivalency diploma but no other education or job training.

She hopes to complete a six-week program to become a certified nursing assistant. If she does, she'll be eligible for jobs that pay more than the minimum wage she previously earned.

The child-care subsidy has made all the difference for Paris Shoulders, who recently graduated from the University of Arizona in psychology and plans to pursue further education in social work.

Shoulders, 25, has received the subsidy since her 5-year-old daughter was 2 months old and as a result was not affected by the enrollment freeze.

"I was busing tables and had no child support coming in," she says. "There's no way I could afford $200 per week without the help."

She struggles, especially when her daughter gets sick. As a single mom, she must take time off her job as an early-childhood educator or find a relative who isn't busy.

"My parents both work more than 40 hours per week themselves," she says. "It's just really, really hard."

Arizona child care cost vs. income

• State median annual income for a single mother: $25,682

• Average annual cost of one infant in child care: $8,946

• Average annual rent: $10,356

• Average annual mortgage payment: $17,988

Source: Child Care Aware America's 2012 report: "Parents and the High Cost of Child Care"

Child Support

Outstanding child support owed to Pima County parents: $240 million

Cases in arrears: 24,686

Source: Arizona Department of Economic Security

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at or 573-4134.

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