SB Independent: Childcare: A Necessity of Life

First published in the Santa Barbara Independent on November 3, 2021.

Four hundred billion dollars is set aside for childcare in President Biden’s infrastructure bill, and the County of Santa Barbara plans to put $2 million from his American Rescue Plan toward childcare. There’s no doubt that there’s an issue: COVID threw into high relief the fact that parents who work need someone to care for their children. But the question being posed now is, what is the best use for all that funding?

Goleta Councilmember James Kyriaco has stood out from the political crowd because of his advocacy for childcare, expressed at every forum during his run in 2018 for City Council. Kyriaco has no children, and he explained that former Santa Barbara councilmember Roger Horton had introduced him to the local childcare network. But the main reason he began to volunteer with the Children’s Resource and Referral Center and the Community Action Commission is because he knows about the issue firsthand. His mother was a single parent who sometimes had to work two jobs. He recalled having really nice caregivers and also indifferent caregivers who “were kind of mean,” he said matter-of-factly. “Between my personal lived experience and volunteer work, when I started to run for office, I knew we needed to make sure cities could do more to put children and youth in the center of policy making.”

Children younger than age 17 make up about 22 percent of the county’s population, and 16,000 of them aren’t in kindergarten yet. The greatest need for care has always been for infants and toddlers because once mothers are out of the 14-week maternity leave period paid by their disability insurance, most go back to work. As Ildi Palmer explained it, one adult may only care for three or four infants compared to six to 14 older kids. Her in-home care center, called Under the Orange Tree, experienced the highs and lows of the pandemic, closing several times for what turned out to be the sniffles. She and her assistant, whom she doesn’t want to lose, are taking care of two very small children who benefit from all the adult attention to every gurgle and yowp.

“If I hadn’t listened to my coworkers and enrolled on a waitlist when I got pregnant, we would never have made it into childcare,” said Gina Fischer, a member of Supervisor Joan Hartmann’s staff whose son just celebrated his first birthday. Countywide, the 5,500 parents who have children each year are in a similar dilemma. The “keep your distance” pandemic rules lowered the number of children in childcare centers, and some of them closed. The ones who stayed open tried to keep all their staff, in part because they were essential workers but also because getting trained, certified, educated caregivers is essential to good care. And that raises the question, what do children need, especially babies?

Consistent caregivers and a warm response to a baby’s distress, responded Lorraine Neenan, director of Children’s Services for CommUnify, the new name for the Community Action Commission, which has run Head Start in the county for 55 years. “Then a baby feels safe, and they learn to trust adults to meet their needs,” she said. They relax, learn social skills, language, and “stretch their physical boundaries and become strong.”

Keeping the staff at Head Start, the federally funded pre-K program that serves 900 children in the county, concerned Neenan, who expects the federal vaccine mandate at the end of the year to decimate her ranks. The program is already understaffed, Neenan said, and she estimated that as much as 15 percent of her 250-member workforce will want to wait on the shot.

Santa Barbara has a couple of options in training for childcare. City College offers an early childhood education degree, UCSB has programs in education, and both have childcare centers. Once childcare employees obtain a bachelor’s degree, Neenan said, they tend to gravitate to school districts, which offer better wages and benefits. “It’s a historically underpaid job,” she said.

Families have also reacted to the pandemic: Parents stayed home with their kids, employers created flexible work hours, and health concerns or finances may have caused families to lean away from childcare, considered the next highest cost after housing in the county, the equivalent of college tuition at some private childcare providers. The United Way estimates a family with two pre-kindergartners must earn $100,000 just to make ends meet.

“COVID has affected the whole, entire childcare industry. We just don’t know what the need is right now,” said Michelle Robertson, deputy director of First 5 Santa Barbara County, which coordinates about $3 million in funding for early education from California’s Proposition 10 tobacco tax. She said First 5 planned to follow Goleta and Santa Barbara’s lead in surveying residents to find out how the access or lack of access to childcare is affecting their lives.

Kyriaco has worked to encourage more childcare options in Goleta. The city has made it simpler to get childcare permits in more zoning areas, which was a working idea Kyriaco observed in West Sacramento. His dream is to emulate San Antonio, which funded four affordable, attractive childcare centers with a one-eighth of a cent sales tax, creating a buzz around the value of good childcare providers.

“I like to say that the lack of access to affordable quality childcare in Santa Barbara County is a problem that has been hiding in plain sight,” Kyriaco commented, blaming the decades-long problem on a lack of awareness, political will, and resources. The connections were aligning locally and even federally “for the first time that I can recall,” he said. “I am really excited about what we may be able to accomplish.”

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