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This story is part of our new reporting series that explores the different pressures affecting cost of living for San Diegans. View more stories here.
Some classes at Honey Bear Preschool and Daycare in Point Loma are so full right now there’s a waitlist. When we asked Rebeca Garcia, the administrator, how long it would take for someone to get a spot, she laughed.
“No idea,” she said. “It’s going to be a really long time.”
From North County to South, families are struggling to find and pay for childcare. The crisis – and it has become one – is two-sided. It’s not just about cost, but access, too. Even if you can afford good childcare, booking a spot has become a brutal experience. And for the tens of thousands of San Diego families who can’t afford full-time daycare, things are getting tense.
For an infant and toddler, full-time care can cost an average of between $16,000 and $20,000 per year.
At Bright Horizons Family Center in Del Mar, there are spots available but for a 2-year-old, a family needs to pay $2,310 a month or almost $28,000 per year. At Dino Daycare in National City, parents can pay $300 a week. Government subsidies provide up to $1,200 per month so Dino can make ends meet, keeping the program relatively affordable.
But there are no spots open at Dino Daycare.
The patchwork that was San Diego’s childcare infrastructure before COVID-19 already was full of holes. Childcare centers were barely making ends meet. Workers were unsatisfied with poverty wages and families struggled to find care. The Workforce Partnership tried to raise the alarm about how bad the system had gotten and the impacts it would have on workforce readiness and the health and prosperity of the region. Advocacy on the topic got more organized.
San Diego for Every Child, a coalition of groups that got together to address childhood poverty, became increasingly vocal on the lack of access to professional childcare.
Then COVID-19 broke that already teetering system.
Before the pandemic hit the United States, San Diego only had enough licensed care to serve about 40 percent of families with two working parents or a single parent who works. We lost 10 percent of those since then, according to the YMCA of San Diego County. The YMCA San Diego serves as the region’s resource and referral system for childcare. It has unique access to data and that data shows things could get even worse.
Fourteen childcare centers and 138 family childcare providers that did not officially close still have not yet re-opened either. That could mean another 2,236 slots lost for parents seeking childcare even while the need increases with increased employment.
It’s causing major problems.
“We’re seeing intense burnout for moms, for families who are struggling with stress every day,” said Kim McDougal, the executive director of the YMCA Childcare Resource Service. “That kind of chronic stress can lead to negative outcomes for mental and emotional wellbeing. That kind of stress can impact children their whole lives.”
Of all the parts of San Diego’s cost of living crisis, the access to, and affordability of, childcare, seems like the one we could most easily address. Unlike housing, it doesn’t require massive construction, difficult land-use decisions or unfathomable adjustments to our economy. Unlike fuel prices or car prices, it’s not subject to geopolitical turbulence, global supply chains or scarce natural resources. Unlike water and power, it doesn’t require massive infrastructure.
But so far, policy solutions are falling way short and some of them may make the situation worse.
The most prominent state action is the governor and Legislature’s push to expand access to transitional kindergarten – giving all 4-year-olds access to essentially free care and school. Before, the program was limited to kids who had been born between September and December and were in something of a middle stage: not quite old enough for kindergarten but close.
Ironically, though, the measure could shatter the fragile economics of the existing system. That’s because 4-year-olds are the cheapest group for whom to provide care – a teacher can oversee more of them than infants or toddlers. Essentially, the economics of a childcare facility depend on the parents of 4-year-olds subsidizing the care of younger children.
If 4-year-olds leave, so does that subsidy.
“It could be really devastating for our childcare community. We anticipate a large number of additional closures unless something changes,” McDougal said.
And it may not even help parents much. Many of the transitional kindergarten programs are only caring for kids for three hours in the morning or afternoon. Parents can’t function without additional care.
“Working families need a nine-hour day,” McDougal said. In February, state Sen. Connie Leyva introduced Senate Bill 976 to provide for a universal preschool benefit throughout the state. If passed, parents would get vouchers to use with any licensed provider. The YMCA of San Diego is explicitly supporting it.
Neither that, though, nor the massive investment in childcare envisioned in the Build Back Better spending bill Congress considered is close to reality. Meanwhile the situation is getting worse.
The same pressures employers are facing across the country are being felt in childcare settings where pay is notoriously very poor. They could often not afford the same care they are providing. Preschool teachers are leaving those jobs – they can make more money at Walmart or In-N-Out.
“Finding qualified teachers has been very, very challenging,” said Garcia, of Honey Bear. “It’s been difficult with the prices of everything increasing because then we have to increase our prices. It’s a vicious cycle.”
All that has left families scrambling. Some are leaving the workforce, mostly women. Some are staggering hours or cobbling together low-cost or family options that have less reliability. That leads to workforce challenges.
It’s not gone unnoticed by policymakers, many of whom have kids of their own and are struggling to figure it out. San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, who now has three kids, pushed the city to consider it during the pandemic. Now, along with Councilman Raul Campillo, he has spurred the city of San Diego began a study of all its buildings to see which ones could possibly house childcare services.
They have identified several dozen. But there’s a catch: City law prohibits city buildings from being used for education. They may have to put up a ballot measure up to change that.
It’s a facilities challenge. It’s a labor challenge. It’s an affordability and financial challenge. And as you start to consider its complexity, the hope that this could be the one area in the cost-of-living crisis where you could make a difference quickly starts to wane.
“I think, until we see substantial state, federal and local investment, it’s going to get worse. Not kind of worse, exponentially worse,” Erin Hogeboom, director of policy and strategy at San Diego for Every Child.
Alisha Wadhwa contributed to this story.