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Child care costs money

Christina Proctor and Greg Risling

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series that looks at the local and national impact of child care.

Food, clothing and shelter. The three necessities humans need to survive. Families might want to add a fourth item to the list: child care.

The cost of child care eats away at the average family budget and barely keeps some households afloat. With a few bucks in the bank, parents are forced to find a second job or settle for a provider who charges lower rates but perhaps isn’t their first choice.

The bills start stacking up and some parents must choose between placing food on the table or paying for better child care. It puts more pressure on parents who endure the monthly routine of trying to make ends meet.

Tahoe’s notorious reputation of low salaries, most of which hover around the minimum wage, hurts families’ chances of providing any amenities. The average median income in Tahoe is $28,727, rating last among other towns in El Dorado County.

A report prepared by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers said on average, poor families spend 18 percent of their incomes on child care.

National concern over the quality of care children from low-income families was part of the impetus for the Bipartisan Child Care Initiative. Hillary Rodham Clinton has challenged the nation to consider how the safety of children in day care can be ensured. One proposal of the initiative sets the year of 2002 as the goal date for the Child Care and Development Block Grant to serve all the families that are income eligible. Now many counties have long waiting lists, and only a fraction of the families in need actually get help.

Most parents and care givers agree that every dollar spent on child care is an investment in a child’s future. Parents grow angry and disappointed when they don’t receive the best care possible. That’s why screening has become an important part of child care. Families want the reassurance that their money is well spent.

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Depending on the road a parent takes, child care can run from $90 to $135 a week. On average, family home providers charge $20 a day per kid. Child-care centers’ fees are steeper, but not by much, estimated to be $5 to $10 more a day.

Child care is more expensive in the Tahoe Basin than on the county’s Western Slope because of the off-hour imposition created by the casino industry (see graph). Providers also tend to raise their rates because child care is at a premium in Tahoe.

More bambinos mean more costs. When Loren Fails and his wife had twins, they realized that the $400 to $500 a month per child was too steep for their taste. They decided to hire an in-home provider who charges reasonable rates and gained the trust of the parents and children.

Fails’ oldest, 3-year-old Alex, always updates mom and dad about the day’s activities. The couple has a logbook where the kids and care giver describe the day’s events.

“It tells where they went and what they did,” Loren said. “It’s about being informed.”

Jan Roman-Gonzales, owner of Jan’s Day Care and Preschool, said she charges $20 a day for an infant and $18 for a school-age child. That price can include three meals and more than nine hours of care.

“Some of my parents have to work 12- and 13-hour shifts and I only charge them for a regular shift,” Roman-Gonzales said. “We have a unique community and you have to take that into consideration. I didn’t get into this profession for the money, although I could use it. I do it because I love kids.”

She said she might have to raise her costs soon in order to keep open.

“I think states and the federal government really needs to step in and offer more subsidized care for working parents,” Roman-Gonzales added.

Allison Puleri taps the high schools for her nighttime care. She pays $5 to $6 an hour to teen-age girls who baby-sit her two boys while she and her husband go to work. Puleri did have one sour experience with a sitter who allegedly stole money from a counter.

“We save here and there since we don’t pay $8 or $9 an hour for child care,” she said. “It would be nice to have a baby-sitters club so parents have one place they can call.”

There are pleasant surprises to be found in the basin. Tahoe Montessori School offers a five-day program that costs $360 per month. Child care is an extension of the private school, where the teachers focus on one-on-one interaction.

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Not every situation goes smoothly. Some families face insurmountable costs and skip out on their monthly payments. Providers obviously come to know the family and some say their trust is broken when the bill isn’t paid. Kindertown owner Maria Crist said one week she filed 10 claims in court and put a lien on someone’s house.

“You give these parents the benefit of the doubt and they rip you off,” she said. “You take them to small claims court and it’s an exhausting process. It’s aggravating when you see them around town and look them in the face knowing they have done wrong.”

Roman-Gonzales said as long as parents are up front with her about their finances, she usually works out either a payment plan or trade.

“I’ve carried parents for two to three months on partial payments,” Roman-Gonzales said. “It’s when they try to cover up and hide it from me that I drop them and take the loss.”

The debate over how child care is delivered will continue to evolve over the coming months. Changes will come from public awareness about the specific identified needs like affordability, availability and most strikingly, quality. According to child-care experts, the absence of one of these factors puts the state of our future – the children – at risk. As the government considers legislation, it is up to the individual communities to make child care work.


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