California Offers Child Care Subsidies for Infants and Toddlers, But Only 9% of Those Eligible Enroll

Lewis Payne teaches toddlers at the Berkeley YMCA on 10th Street, one of 13 YMCA locations in the Central Bay Area that offer child care for children 2 and younger that can be paid for using government subsidies. Few California day cares accept the subsidies and, if they do, the hours often aren’t flexible enough for working parents. Photo: YMCA of the Central Bay Area.


Richmond resident Jervice Youngblood is grateful that she receives government-subsidized child care for her 2-year-old daughter while she works as a transit driver.

“I do not have too many family members I can depend on to watch my daughter,” she said. Without the subsidy, “I wouldn’t be able to go to work and make money and it would be hard to pay my bills.”

Youngblood is among the few qualifying low-income parents who use child-care subsidies for children 2 and younger. According to a report released in March by policy group Children Now, only 9 percent of eligible infants and toddlers have state-subsidized child care.

Eligibility for these subsidies is based on state income eligibility guidelines, set at 70 percent of the state median income — or $46,896 for a family of four, said Stacy Lee, managing director of early childhood project integration for Children Now.

Those who work in the child-care field say the chief reasons the subsidies are underused are a severe shortage of child-care spots for that age group, insufficient hours offered by day care providers and reluctance on the part of parents to leave children that young in day care.

Not enough providers

Child-care subsidies come from federal, state and local sources. Parents who wish to apply for aid must contact their local county welfare department. They have to provide information stating the reason they need child care, the family income and the number of children in the family.

Families that are approved for child-care subsidies can choose their own child-care provider. Local child-care resource and referral agencies provide directories of those who offer care. The subsidies are then paid directly to the child-care provider.

Alyssa Johnson of Oakdale would love to get subsidized care for her 6-month-old in day care but so far she hasn’t found a spot. While she meets the income qualifications for subsidies, she has been on a waiting list for a couple of months. She isn’t surprised by the wait because she recalls that it took her a year to find a spot for her 4-year-old son.

For now, while she works at her job as a caregiver for seniors, she has different relatives watch her daughter. She said it would take a lot of stress off her to have one place where her daughter could go. “I wouldn’t have to find someone every day,” she said.

The Children Now report found that California’s day cares have the capacity to only take 25 percent of the state’s children who are 2 and younger. The number of spots available drops even lower when you take into account day cares that are willing to accept subsidies.

YMCA of the Central Bay Area offers 344 child-care spots for children 2 and younger at 13 locations and all of them fill up quickly, said Pamm Shaw, the executive director. She believes more people would use subsidized child care if more spaces were available.

Priced out

Many day-care providers don’t want to accept children 2 and younger for financial reasons, Shaw said. They can earn more money taking children who are 3 or 4 because of the lower staffing ratio requirement for older children. State law requires that day-care providers maintain a ratio of one staff member for every four children under 18 months and one staff member to every six children who are 18 months to 3. The ratio is 1 staff member to 12 children for preschool children ages 3 or 4.

Subsidized child-care rates are low compared to the work required. In San Joaquin County for example, the weekly rate for subsidized full-time infant home day care is $194. Rates vary from region to region.

“That is expensive for a parent but it is not that much for a person giving 40 hours of care to an infant,” said Kay Ruhstaller, executive director of Family Resource and Referral Center in Stockton.

The weekly rate of $194 for 40 hours of care for an infant works out to $4.85 per hour.

Vickie Green, a home day-care provider in the county, said she charges parents who don’t get subsidies $250 per week for the same amount of care.

Caregivers working with infants and toddlers must contend with diaper changes, bottle or spoon feeding and behaviors like biting and scratching.

“This job is way underpaid,” said Diana Quiroga, a Stockton home day care provider.

‘It’s darn near impossible’

Another issue is that day-care hours don’t always match the needs of parents. Usually day-care hours are Monday through Friday during the day. If parents work other hours, they often have difficulty finding child care even if they qualify for subsidies.

“If someone is working on weekends and needs weekend care, it’s darn near impossible,” said Lourdes Vose of Sierra Nevada Children’s Services in Grass Valley, the state child-care referral agency for Nevada County.

Green, who operates her home day care business in Lathrop, said parents often need long hours of care for their children because they commute to jobs a half-hour or more away from home. Some parents want care for their children from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Providers don’t want to work 12 hours,” Green said. “We would like to work standard hours like most people.”

Other parents don’t use child-care subsidies for infants and toddlers because they don’t want to leave a child that young in day care, Vose said.

Some parents prefer to put their child with a relative, neighbor or someone they know. The state can provide minimal subsidies to such people, who are categorized as “license-exempt providers.” The caregivers under that classification must get background checks and provide only for one family. In Nevada County, the reimbursement rate for these providers is about $3 an hour, Vose said.

Shaw, the executive director from the YMCA of the Central Bay Area, said she thinks parents shouldn’t underestimate the value of placing their children with a high-quality provider with staff members who are educated about child development. As an example, a high-quality provider will talk to young children and sing with them.

Lee, who works with Children Now, said policymakers should find a comprehensive solution for child care for birth to age 5. When children get to kindergarten, families can look to schools as a point of contact to get the help they need. But there is little support for families with younger children.

“Families need options,” Lee said. “Wherever the child is, they should have access to a caregiver well-informed about child development who cares for the child in an enriching environment.”

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