California Forum

Good roads, good broadband – good child care. Sacramento needs infrastructure for kids

A child care provider in the La Riviera area of Sacramento tidies up after making lunch for her young charges and setting out nap areas, on May 28, 2015.
A child care provider in the La Riviera area of Sacramento tidies up after making lunch for her young charges and setting out nap areas, on May 28, 2015. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In coming days, Sacramento city officials will launch Project Prosper, hosting three forums to gather residents’ ideas to boost “economic prosperity” and create “healthier and more vibrant neighborhoods.”

Those meetings on Feb. 21, Feb. 22 and March 3 are a good place to start a conversation about child care – how it can help parents get jobs and keep them, provide stable environments for children, and build and retain workforces for local businesses.

Thirty years ago, Sacramento was a leader on child care, written up in a National League of Cities publication as one of 26 trend-setting cities.

It’s time to see child care as a basic building block of our modern infrastructure, an essential service that helps businesses and workers thrive.

Much of this acclaim was due to the persistence of Jacquie Swaback, the city’s first and only child care coordinator. From 1987 to 1993, the city made progress on each of the three “A”s of child care – accessibility, availability, and affordability – and also raised wages for the city’s own child care workers.

Swaback’s position, sadly, was cut to deal with a budget deficit, and never reinstated. Not surprisingly, the city lost its ground-breaking momentum.

Today’s child care system – throughout California and here in Sacramento – is a patchwork of underfunded programs, staffed by underpaid workers, administered by organizations that would benefit from a makeover for the 21st century.

Low- and moderate-income working parents are desperate for full-day, quality care near their homes or workplaces, at a cost not approaching a year of college.

One parent I interviewed told a typical story. Three-months pregnant when she placed her name on a child care center’s waiting list, her daughter was two months old by the time a space opened. That’s a lot of stress for an expectant mom.

Low-income parents are especially challenged to find care. The California Budget and Policy Project reports subsidized slots for child care and preschool have not yet returned to pre-recession numbers, with child care slots lagging the most.

Julie Gallelo, executive director of First 5 Sacramento, calls the limited supply of child care “a gaping hole of need.”

For decades, policymakers have viewed child care through a kaleidoscope. With one lens, they see child care as a work support for low-income families. With another, quality care comes into focus – prompting significant investment in quality rating systems and pre-kindergarten, which research shows can boost children’s educational and economic outcomes.

It’s now time to use a lens that sees child care as a basic building block of our modern infrastructure. Like roads, water conveyance and broadband, child care is an essential service that helps businesses and workers thrive.

There’s reason to be hopeful.

In advance of the 2018 elections, several groups, including the California Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education, the Learning Policy Institute, and Children Now, are outlining options to build a more comprehensive system of early care, including support for full-day child care.

Here in Sacramento, Council Member Angelique Ashby wants city-owned properties identified to provide city workers on-site options for child care. And Councilman Eric Guerra, a new dad and proud son of a child care provider, will host a forum on child care this spring.

The issue, of course, will be cost.

But consider the fundraising success of our region’s political talent in the last year alone – $500 million of incentives to attract an Amazon headquarters and millions more to address homelessness. One wonders, then, what might be accomplished to build the supply of child care if our political leaders made it a priority.

Guerra certainly gets the connection with economic prosperity. “If we want to grow into a city that is prosperous, we have to think about young families wanting to be here and putting down roots,” he told me recently. “That means we need to meet their needs – not just housing and jobs – but also affordable child care.”

Kate Karpilow is the former executive director of the California Center for Research on Women & Families. She can be contacted at katekarpilow@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @katekarpilow.

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