Marjaneh Ghasemi of Normal is a single mother of four kids, ages 1 through 7. She’s cobbled together what she thinks is her most affordable child care arrangement—an in-home day care for the younger two, and paying a college student to watch the older kids after they get off school.
For that, Ghasemi pays a staggering $25,000 a year.
That’s more than half her income from her job at State Farm. The 31-year-old says she’s barely able to put food on the table because of child care expenses.
“It all goes to day care, the mortgage, and the necessities. There’s no extras right now. And that’s just the way it’s gonna be for the next five years,” said Ghasemi.
Ghasemi is one of many McLean County parents who struggle to afford child care. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have grandparents nearby, parents often pay over $250 a week per kid at a child care center. Ghasemi pays a bit less for an in-home day care ($165 per week per kid).
There is help, but it’s limited. Ghasemi said her choice of a cheaper in-home day care means she doesn’t qualify for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program. And she said she’s repeatedly failed to win the lottery to get her older kids into Normal Parks and Recreation’s affordable after-school program at Grove Elementary School, which is at capacity. Instead, she pays the college student $150 per week to watch her two older kids at home until she gets off work. The Grove after-school program would be around $40 per week—if she could get in.
She wishes there was more financial assistance available for working parents.
“I’m kind of radical when it comes to this, but I feel like child care should be a covered expense for every working family,” Ghasemi said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “People have to work. The kids need to be watched and in a safe environment. And that’s the No. 1 thing for me.”
Raising kids is hard. That’s not new. But as more and more households send both parents into the workforce, the challenge of finding and paying for child care only grows. Policymakers haven’t made it any easier; just 14 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave to give parents guilt-free bonding time with their new baby, according to the National Compensation Survey, conducted annually by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Illinois still doesn’t have universal public preschool. Ghasemi’s dream of free child care? Fat chance.
For a single-parent household like Ghasemi’s, the math is crushing. Even for a dual-parent household, it’s not easy. In Illinois, a married couple with two children will spend on average 25 percent of their income on child care if they use a full day care center, according to a 2018 study from Child Care Aware of America, a leading nonprofit that advocates for pro-family policies.
There are around 10,500 kids under age 5 living in McLean County. Experts say there’s no perfect way to track where they all go for child care. There were 33 licensed child care centers with capacity for 4,000 kids as of 2016, state data show, and room for another 2,100 at license-exempt centers and licensed in-home care. There are stay-at-home parents, unlicensed in-home care, neighbors, and grandparents.
Unlike K-12 education, it’s a patchwork. Child Care Aware says it’s a broken system.
“It’s hard for parents to navigate. It’s hard to understand what’s available, what you can afford,” said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware. “It’s kind of all over the place. In a perfect world, we’d either have one system or a system that incorporated all these different types of options where they talked to each other, so there are similar standards, so people would know what it would cost to send their child.”
There are resources out there. The Child Care Resource and Referral Network (CCRRN), based in Bloomington, serves McLean and three other adjacent counties. It connects parents with ExceleRate, a search tool for child care and early learning programs. Employee-assistance programs at both State Farm and COUNTRY Financial can help find child care.
But the prevailing view is that child care is expensive and that CCAP’s subsidy amount is below the market average for the majority of care provided in Illinois, said Dan Harris, executive director of Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), which includes 16 local CCRRN agencies around the state.
“I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from parents where both are working, where one of the parent’s wages—all of their wages—goes to child care for their two kids. It’s very expensive. And that’s another factor increasing the difficulty of finding care, particularly high-quality care,” he said.
Eligibility for CCAP and other programs, like Head Start, are typically limited to low-income families. That leaves a gap for middle-income earners with children, said Miranda Lin, an early childhood expert at Illinois State University’s College of Education.
“It’s a dilemma for parents who make enough money but not so much money. For them it’s always an issue,” said Lin.
Why So Expensive?
Many parents choose an in-home option because it’s typically cheaper than a full child care center, such as Little Jewels Learning Center, Katie’s Kids Learning Centers, or Cadence Academy.
There are good reasons why those child care centers are more expensive, said Katie Stelle-Mardis, owner of Katie’s Kids. Her two Bloomington-Normal locations serve around 280 kids, most between 6 weeks old through kindergarten.
Stelle-Mardis said she takes pride in providing good pay and benefits to her employees. It’s her biggest expense.
“I say that cautiously, because we have such an underpaid field, so it seems crazy that a majority of our income is going to our staff when they’re paid so little,” she said.
Indeed, the median hourly wage for a full-time early childhood teacher in 2017 was $12.50 per hour, or $26,000 per year, according to a 2017 survey from the Illinois Department of Human Services. The top reason early childhood teachers left their jobs willingly was dissatisfaction with pay or benefits, the survey found.
Katie’s Kids also hires more employees to bring its adult-to-child ratio (1 to 4) below the state requirement (1 to 8), Stelle-Mardis said. That leads to a better learning environment at Katie’s Kids.
“That’s something that makes us different, but it increases our costs,” Stelle-Mardis said.
The pressure on parents has changed tremendously in recent years as more households send both parents in the workforce, she said. Cost isn’t the only hard part.
“There comes a lot of parental guilt. Especially us as mothers. We have this perceived notion that we are the sole primary caregivers for our children, and so it’s really hard to share that responsibility with somebody else,” said Stelle-Mardis, who has a 5-year-old and 3-year-old.
“So I feel like when families come to look at Katie’s Kids, I want them to know that we thrive on relationships, and we want them to be a partner in their child’s development,” she added. “The reality is, children are often with us more than they’re with their parents during the week, during waking hours. It’s like picking your spouse, a partner.”
Finding that partner isn't always easy.
A few years ago when Brianne and Andy Anderson from Atlanta, Ill., were looking for day care for their new daughter, Brooklyn, they didn’t even know where to start. They wanted in-home option, largely because it’s cheaper. Andy is a plumber. Brianne is an administrator at LIFE Center for Independent Living in Bloomington. They essentially live paycheck to paycheck.
They found a place, but that fell apart. They were surprised to learn it wasn’t even licensed.
“So we had to find another day care,” Brianne said. “At that point we were really lost and didn’t know what to do.”
Brianne said they turned to the Child Care Resource and Referral Network, which provided a list of new options. They visited three in-home day cares before they found the right fit, at a place in Bloomington where Brooklyn’s been for the past three years.
“You just gotta jell, you know?” Andy said of their visit. “It was like family right off the bat.”
They pay $140 dollars a week. They're happy to do it, because of the good care Brooklyn, now 4, receives. But they see challenges on the horizon. Soon they'll have to pay for Brooklyn to go to part-time preschool too. And then it's kindergarten—and finding after-school care to bridge the gap before they get off work.
“It’s causing me a little anxiety thinking about that. It’s very important to know your child is taken care of. And now we’re gonna have to start that whole process off again,” Brianne said.
A Village Of Grandparents
Some new parents find their child care solution within their family.
Molly Sharer-Barbee and her husband, Chris Barbee, of Heyworth rely on two sets of grandparents who split up the week with their 17-month-old daughter, Evie. They discussed other options, including Molly staying home with Evie and leaving her job as a physical education and health teacher at Normal West high school. They could’ve made it work budgetwise, but there are other costs.
“A part of me would be missing,” she said. “I really like teaching. I like the creativity that comes with it. I like the bonds with my students. That would be a big sacrifice.”
Instead, Molly works full-time and so does Chris, at ADM in Decatur. Molly’s mother, Marie Bosche, is retired from Illinois State University. She and her husband, Randy Sharer, hang out with Evie on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Chris’ parents, Roxann and Steve, take Thursdays and Fridays. The thinking is, Molly and Chris get to work, everyone gets time with Evie, but no one gets burned out.
“I didn’t really think of it as I’m saving her money,” Bosche said. “I was thinking of it as what a benefit it would be for everybody involved. In our case, it was a decision made based on Evie’s well-being.”
Bosche treasures her time with Evie.
“It’s just incredible. It’s very hard to put into words,” said Bosche, tearing up. “When you’re raising your own children, you have such stress in your life going on. This is like another go-around. We’re able to focus in on small little things, little tiny developmental things. We have the time to take her places during the daytime. It’s like having a child, but you’re coming at it from a different place.”
For Molly, having two sets of grandparents so involved is more than logistically helpful.
“There’s so many baby books and articles you can read and differing opinions. But I have six people that really know her. Like, what do you think will work for Evie? That’s comforting. Because I get overwhelmed with all the advice you can read about. It’s just nice to have people that really know her.”
Coming Thursday: What gaps exist in the Bloomington-Normal child care marketplace, and what programs exist (or should exist) to help fill them?
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