By Marielle Argueza
Photos by Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Being a single working mother is hard enough. But in Monterey County, it’s especially difficult. Portola Hotel and Spa employee Stephanie King is a Salinas mother of two daughters under the age of 5. She says even before the economic challenges of the pandemic — when she had to stop working entirely to supervise her eldest daughter’s virtual school — she was struggling to afford and find childcare.
“I can barely make it. It’s $400 per week. That’s $400 per child. You just see the money disappear,” she said.
The COVID surge last summer made the scarcity entirely clear. “Last summer was a perfect example,” she said. Her entire household, including her parents, got COVID soon after she returned to working full time. Living in a multi-generational household, she was taking care of not only her children, but also her elderly grandmother.
Again, she was unable to work. “It was really stressful,” she said. “I was suddenly a caretaker for four people.”
A new parcel tax on this November’s ballot is aiming to tackle some of King’s and other parents’ childcare woes. Called the Safe, Affordable, Quality Child Care Act, the tax would raise $5.5 million annually over a period of 10 years.
Currently, there are only 9,200 slots for the county’s 36,000 children under the age of 5. This leaves the vast majority — about 75% of kids — without access to childcare.
The act’s campaign volunteer, Francine Rodd, said the infusion of money would help low-income working families the most, as only an estimated 10% of families can afford the options currently available.
“There are a number of subsidized slots as a part of Headstart. But then you’re paying $10,000 and $14,000 annually,” said Rodd. “That’s more than tuition at CSUMB. As far as access to private slots? Those are just inaccessible for a lot of low-income and middle-class families.”
At those prices, only 19% of Monterey County families can afford early care and education services for one child, while only 10% of families can afford it for two children.
The money raised would be used to leverage federal and state dollars that the county already receives to assist in early child development. “It definitely will not solve all of the gaps,” Rodd said. “But it’s better than just relying on state and federal dollars to solve the problem.”
Monterey County’s District 3 Supervisor Chris Lopez wants to see local, state and federal dollars funneled into building new childcare facilities on land that the county or cities already own. “If we can leverage this money right, we can create 10 facilities all over the county,” he said.
Rodd adds that some funds can go toward bolstering training and apprenticeships and expanding partnerships with school districts — such as the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District — that are shuttering some of their campuses due to declines in enrollment.
Coupled with the recession, the lack of childcare also seems to be influencing family planning and a more robust recovery. “Business owners are definitely watching — not just on the side lines but in their own lives — the lack of strength and return. It’s been difficult for them to see their workers or wives not come back to work because of [a lack] childcare,” said Rodd.
Janine M. Chicourrat is the former Monterey County Hospitality Association Chair and managing director of the Portola Hotel and Spa. She sees the effects on the ground, where cleaning staff, to managers have had to choose between working and taking care of their families.
While Chicourrat believes the state is trying to help with childcare, it’s not enough. “State funding [for childcare] is based on an income threshold. But the cost of living here is just super-high. It’s classic government, where they’re trying to do something good, but in reality it’s not enough… and they’re actually suppressing people’s ability to earn a living,” she said.
Though the act has already received widespread support among county supervisors and the county’s two biggest industries — agriculture and hospitality — Rodd said it’s not a silver bullet: “This is just one piece of the puzzle. There has to be continued advocacy because the childcare market is broken.” She cited low wages, lack of a workforce, and other protections.
For now, parents like King are playing whatever cards they’re dealt. “My biggest problem is when the girls are not in school,” she said “When they’re not, it’s the whole thing all over again: finding a babysitter, and paying 90% of my paycheck. I don’t how I survive.”
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