By Catherine Irwin
BALTIMORE – Nicole Williams had been working at a body shop making “good money,” she said, for eight years before she took maternity leave for the birth of her daughter.
But when it came time to return to work after her maternity leave, she discovered that — now with a baby and her fiance’s toddler from a previous relationship at home — she couldn’t afford the cost of day care.
“I used to bring home about $2,000 a month,” said Williams, who lives in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. “But it was about $1,700 a month just to take care of the kids, and after that I just wasn’t bringing enough home to justify having the job.”
The cost of child care in Maryland has risen about 18.5 percent over the past decade, in part an unintended consequence of a state program aimed at improving day-care center standards.
On top of that, the state has frozen child care subsidies for low-income families and are putting families on a waiting list.
Williams realized she also couldn’t afford not to work. So she baby-sat for the child of a friend to supplement her fiance’s income as a general contractor.
Increasingly, parents in Maryland are having to make tough choices: give up their jobs or find cheaper, often illegal alternatives.
“Illegal child care is all over the state, and people are forced to use that illegal child care even more in the past few years because, unfortunately, those centers don’t charge as much,” said Jennifer Nizer, president of the Maryland State Child Care Association, an organization for promoting growth and development in licensed Maryland child care centers.
“On the other hand, there are parents who have actually quit work, just because they can’t afford child care, and the rising costs make it better for them to quit work than pay for child care.”
Child-care costs are projected to rise another 6 to 16 percent in the next four years, according to a study by the Maryland Family Network. The cost increase, the freeze in subsidies and a record number of applicants for aid have combined to create a “quiet crisis,” said Margo Sipes, executive director of Downtown Baltimore Child Care, an early-education and child care center in Baltimore.
For families like Amy Bradshaw’s, the cost of child care factors into a decision to have another child. Video by Jamie Forzato.
The state launched an accreditation program in 1999 to improve the quality of child care here. The program rates centers based on whether they offer educational programming, such as standardized curriculums and frequent developmental testing for children. It also requires more training and higher education for staff. The ratings, which are publicly available, serve as both carrot and stick.
Overall the program has markedly improved the quality of licensed child care centers, said Elizabeth Kelley, cq director of the Office of Child Care for the Maryland State Department of Education. But it also has driven up fees to cover costs, such as standardized testing booklets, development tests and the extra staffing to perform them. Child care workers make about $8.66 to $19 an hour, according to a study by the Maryland Family Network.
All those expenses are heaped on top of rising rents and food and gas prices, pushing child care fees ever higher.
More than 12,200 working families depend on child-care subsidies from the state. The Department of Education program pays a proportion of the costs for eligible families based on income eligibility and need. But last year, the state ran short of funds because of increased demand and a decrease in federal funding, so it put an indefinite freeze on accepting new applicants. More than 15,000 people are on the waiting list.
Wendell Harris is one of them. His son, now 10, was born with congenital heart disease, and when Harris’ wife died six years ago, he needed to pay for hospital bills, rent, gas and day care on his pay as a manager at Royal Farms.
Wendell Harris struggles to pay for child care for his special needs child. Video by Jamie Forzato.
He applied for the child care subsidy and was receiving help until last February, when he applied for a routine renewal of benefits and was told that the funds were on hold and he would be put on a waiting list.
“So in order for him to go to day care, I’m borrowing the money from outside sources and postdating a check to say, ‘ Hey, can you hold this until Monday instead of Friday?’ …I just talked to them [the state] again and they still have no idea when funding will be available,” Harris said.
“I wasn’t asking for a handout. I was just asking for help.”
The child care subsidy program is funded through an annual grant from the federal government, matching funds from the state and more federal funds for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a program that provides assistance and work opportunities to families through state programs. In 2012 those funds combined equalled $69 million, Kelley said.
The state received an additional $24 million grant through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2008, which it used for supporting the child care subsidy program, the statewide resource and referral network and various initiatives to promote the economic and social well-being of children, youth, families, and communities, Kelley said. But those funds ran out in 2011.
Yet demand for child care assistance remains high.
This year’s budget provides just enough to cover the families enrolled in the program before the freeze plus new families with disabilities or in need of emergency assistance. Families who qualify based solely on their income eligibility and need are placed on the waiting list.
There’s “no end in sight,” said Kelley of the state Office of Child Care. “Until we have additional funding, the waiting list will be in place.”
When the subsidy ran out, more parents were unable to afford child care. Many centers closed due in part to the drop off in enrollment. The number of licensed centers is down to 10,512, 14 percent fewer than in 2007, according to the Maryland Department of Education licensing statistics.
“Without that subsidy, the number of [licensed] child care centers are diminishing, and that’s a big deal,” said Sipes of the Downtown Baltimore Child Care. “If centers are closing and child care is still listed as one of the top three costs in every county, that just tells us that more children are just staying at home with older siblings or going to illegal centers.”
Maryland law makes it illegal to operate a child care center or take in even one child on a regular basis at home without a license.
Children are missing out on quality care during the most important formative years of their lives, Sipes said.
“For our youngest children, continuity of care is very important for optimal brain development,” said Sipes. “To take them out of an environment where they feel safe, secure and nurtured and put them in another environment, even if it’s a good environment, is very difficult for children… but if you put them somewhere that might not be as safe and secure, it’s even worse for development.”