Adventures in babysitting: Oakland parents struggle to find the right child care

James Cox buckles in her daughter, Yemaya, as they head to Creative Explorers—a child care center that meets Cox's unique needs.

James Cox buckles in her daughter, Yemaya, as they head to Creative Explorers—a child care center that meets Cox's unique needs.

On an early Friday morning, James Cox is getting her daughter, Yemaya, 3, ready to go. The last order of business before they head out: Yemaya’s hair. Cox undoes her two messy pigtails and uses some hair product to make two new, neat pigtails.

“Where we going?” Yemaya asks.

“We’re going to see all your friends at Mary’s house,” her mother responds, putting the finishing touches on her hair.

Yemaya has been going to Mary’s house—really, a child care center called Creative Explorers run by Mary Franklin—for over a year now. Cox found out about Creative Explorers through happenstance. She had been struggling for two years to find an affordable child care option for her daughter. She and Yemaya’s dad, who co-parent, had been relying on a network of friends and roommates to watch their daughter. But since they both work in the restaurant industry—Cox as a server and Yemaya’s dad as a chef—their schedules are always shifting, adding to the challenge of finding consistent care. “I had been banging my head against the wall,” Cox says. “How am I going to do this?”

At a relief drive for Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Cox struck up a conversation with another mother while their daughters played. The woman said that Franklin, her friend, a former preschool teacher, was trying to start up a child care center. Cox connected with Franklin and liked her vision for the day care center, so Yemaya started there.

Even though the commute to the house in San Leandro is pretty long, it’s worth it for Cox because Franklin is willing to meet her needs. For instance, on Fridays, Yemaya spends the night at Creative Explorers because Cox works a night shift at Copper Spoon, a restaurant in Oakland, and doesn’t get off until after midnight. And, she says, Franklin has worked with her to develop a flexible pay schedule. Cox often has to rely on tips to pay for child care. “Some days I have to pay all of my tips to daycare,” she says, “and then some days I make a lot of tips and I get to pay my daycare provider, then still have some money left in my pocket.”

But while Cox was able to find a place for her daughter that makes her happy, affordable child care remains elusive for many families in Alameda County. According to data gathered by staffers the Alameda County Early Care and Education Program, about 7,000 children in the county are currently on a waitlist for child care services and in need of subsidized child care. The majority of those children—nearly 5,000—are in the northern part of the county, which includes Oakland.

Management analyst India Alarcon, who helped compile and analyze the data for the county, said that access is still the biggest issue for families when it comes to child care. First, there’s the cost. Depending on the type of facility, the annual price tag can range anywhere from $14,400 to $22,800 per child in the Bay Area, according to the Children’s Council San Francisco. For a working parent who makes the Oakland minimum wage ($30,093 per year), paying nearly half of their income for child care is not doable.

T Lab, the research and development arm of Tipping Point, a San Francisco nonprofit that develops and funds ideas to fight poverty in the Bay Area, has worked on projects seeking to improve access to child care. T Lab director Stephanie Lewis says that many people working to support their families “actually have to opt out of the labor force or demote themselves because they can’t afford childcare.”

If a family can’t afford care, they can apply for cash subsidies or vouchers through the California Alternative Payment Programs and CalWORKs. The programs are administered by county welfare departments and by the California Department of Education and provide families with help to meet their childcare expenses. For families, this can mean navigating through several agencies and dealing with a web of bureaucracy.

A number of nonprofits and agencies in Alameda County, such as BANANAS, work with families to determine their eligibility, help them apply for the right type of assistance, and make referrals to child care centers. BANANAS executive director Kym Johnson says that the root of the problem goes beyond connecting people to subsidies—it’s the number of subsidies available. According to the Alameda County Early Care and Education program, only 1 in 5 kids who are eligible for financial assistance based on their parents’ household income are currently receiving subsidies or vouchers.

“There are many more people who are eligible that still don’t receive the funds because it’s a finite resource,” Johnson says. “There just is not enough funding to take care of the need.”

Another problem is that there are not enough care providers. Based on the data gathered by the county’s Early Care and Education Program, over 10,000 preschool-aged kids, who could be attending a licensed child care center or a preschool, do not have access to one. In some parts of Oakland, that translates to over 60 percent of kids.

The most direct way to increase access to child care is to increase funding for it, according to Johnson, which advocates in Alameda County have tried to do through two recent ballot measures. Measure A, which appeared on the June primary ballot, would have raised $140 million a year through a 30-year, half percent sales tax. The funds would have increased the number of child care subsidies, expanded the number of spots available at facilities, and hired more teachers and staff. The measure fell just 1,600 votes short of two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

In November, Oakland voters also considered Measure AA, which would have used a 30-year parcel tax to raise roughly $25 million a year. The funds would have been directed toward efforts to improve access and quality to early childhood education for Oakland families, with a focus on preschool and pre-kindergarten. The measure also needed two-thirds of the vote to pass, but only received about 62 percent.

But a year-old court decision may change that particular outcome. In 2017, in California Cannabis Coalition v the City of Upland, the California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 218—which made passing a special tax require a two-thirds supermajority—may not apply to initiatives that got on the ballot through signature gathering, like Measure AA. As a result, Measure AA supporters say, the measure would only need a simply majority to pass. For now, the measure is not in effect, and requires further action by advocates—likely in the courts.

The effort to increase childcare funding in California has been ongoing since at least 1998, when First 5 California was funded through a cigarettes sales tax approved by voters under Proposition 10. The group since been working on improving the quality of care and education for children under age 5 by providing resources to parents, informal caregivers and child care providers. Page Tomblin, a senior policy administrator at First 5 Alameda County, says that quality child care and early childhood education leads to improved educational outcomes.

Through its Quality Counts program, First 5 “emphasizes the importance of professional development for early educators and improving the environment” in child care centers, Tomblin says. They work with educators to build curriculums that aid children’s social and emotional development, and help prepare them for kindergarten.

Ellen Dektar, a senior policy administrator at Alameda County’s Early Care and Education Program, says that often caregivers and preschool teachers aren’t paid well enough or given the proper supports to grow as teachers. Not only does this affect the quality of education and care, but it also means that “some programs can’t open because they don’t have enough staff,” she says. That, in turn, means fewer spots available for kids.

While the defeat of Measure A was a frustrating setback to her, Dektar says she remains optimistic. “I have been working on this for 30 years, and I see a sea change in local support for the issue and recognition of the importance of early childhood education on the continuum of education,” she says.

For Johnson, it’s frustrating to hear voters ask why they should care about child care if they don’t have children or if theirs are grown up—a common refrain at exit polls regarding Measure A. She sees providing quality child care as a community need, on the same level as investing in roads and other infrastructure. “It’s something that we as a collective use, and we as a collective will all benefit from,” Johnson said. “When you have an informed and thriving group of young people that are learning and becoming great and wonderful citizens, it benefits all of us.”

And finally—in addition to the problems with funding and availability—parents seeking childcare may also face significant difficulties with scheduling. This problem is particularly urgent for families in which the parents do shift work that doesn’t fall within traditional business hours, such as being home health care providers, driving for Lyft or Uber, or working in restaurants, like Cox does. When Yemaya was younger, Cox says, working full-time and balancing child care was a huge challenge. She had to switch her shifts from dinner time, when she made a lot more in tips, to breakfast and lunch because she couldn’t find child care services at night.

Many child care providers are only open 7 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. And they may not work with clients whose income fluctuates—as Cox’s tip-based work does—to develop individualized pay schedules. According to Johnson, those gaps in services typically affect lower- and middle-income parents. “The supply [of child care] is not matching the need for many families,” she says.

Part of the response to that unmet need is the growth of what Johnson calls the “informal caregiver ecosystem.” It can take many forms, but, primarily, it means having a family member or friend watch the kids. But not all parents have family to fall back on. Cox is originally from Michigan and doesn’t have family in the Bay Area. She’s built her own “chosen family” out here, she says, but it’s different when you’re relying on friends your own age, who have their own social lives and work schedules, rather than “your grandma, who was like already in bed and doesn’t have any plans.”

Starting in 2016, a pilot program in Oakland called Gma Village tried to provide parents like Cox with their own stand-in grandma. Gma Village used an app to connect parents seeking affordable child care to grandmas in their neighborhood, who were willing to provide child care for a much cheaper fee than day care centers. Once a match was made, the parents and the caretaker worked together to determine the best schedule and appropriate fees. Gma Village started out as project run by T Lab. Lewis, the lab’s director, says they are were “trying to increase the supply of providers in a way that would allow parents to be able to access [child care] in an affordable way.”

According to Lewis, they learned that while parents are open to informal methods of child care, it is still essential “to build trust to have your child be watched by a stranger.” She says they were sensitive to this concern—the grandmas worked to build personal relationships with the parents —but the lab was unable to find a sustaining source of funding for the project, and shut it down earlier this year.

Another recent T Lab project tried to create a child care sharing model for restaurant workers. T Lab collaborated with Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), a national organization that organizes service workers to improve their working conditions. Together, they brainstormed solutions for parents who work irregular hours. They settled on developing an app that would connect parents willing to trade child care services. It functioned similarly to the Gma Village app by matching parents and then leaving it up to them to build a relationship and figure out how they could support each other’s needs.

Cox, who was recently hired as an organizer at ROC, participated in the project. She liked the app because it helped her get to know the other parents—an initial chat over the phone or video, then a face-to-face meeting to figure out schedules, then home visits. “I’m so paranoid about leaving my daughter with people that I don’t know,” says Cox, so building that trust was important to her.

Cox says that an exchange based on time and not money is helpful for parents working in restaurants. “It would be like, cool, I watch your kid for ten hours and you watch my kids for ten hours,” she says—that way child care expenses don’t cut into your wages and tips.

So far, the group has only tested the app on a small scale as a prototype. Despite positive feedback from the participants, they haven’t yet found the funding to do a larger pilot program.

So until she can trade child care with her coworkers, Cox will keep taking her daughter to Mary’s house. When they arrive on a Friday morning, there are already four other kids there—five if you include Franklin’s 3-month-old baby.

Cox says she doesn’t want to just leave Yemaya with someone who will watch her; she wants her to get “stimulation and development and socialization with other kids.” So at Creative Explorers, they do art projects, science lessons, gardening, cooking, and lots of outside activities. They learn English and Spanish. They go on field trips every week to different parts of the Bay Area. Next to the living room is playroom equipped with the full rainbow of crayons, a corner of stuffed animals, toy cars, toy figures … toy everything. The kids are still enjoying free play when Cox says bye to Yemaya. She says that she’ll be back to get her on Saturday morning.

Cox gets in her car and heads to work at ROC in downtown Oakland. When she finishes her work day at ROC, she’ll head over to the Copper Spoon for her night shift. She says it’s hard to not be with her daughter all day, but she does have a moment to look forward to. Each day, Franklin sends a midday update to parents with photos about the kids’ activities. It’s one of Cox’ favorite parts of the day: seeing a picture of Yemaya and being reminded that she’s being cared for.

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