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Taking Care of the Kids

Taking Care of the Kids
...From the pages of South Jersey Magazine...

One of the many issues in the national spotlight throughout the presidential campaign was the high cost of child care nationwide.

For families with two young children under 5, child care is the second biggest piece of the budget, after housing. Nationally, the average cost is $9,589 per year, more than the average cost of in-state tuition, according to a report from New America, aWashington, D.C.-based think tank, along with care.com.

In New Jersey, costs are above the national average—about $17,000, or 27 percent of a family’s income. That percentage increases significantly for low-income and single-parent households. To put this in perspective, the Department of Health and Human Services says the affordable benchmark for child care is 10 percent of a household income.

Looking at these costs, many parents question whether it would be more sensible to have one stay home with the kids.

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“I wish I could stay home with my girls, but we wouldn’t be able to make ends meet with only one income,” says Marlton resident Shannon Navarro, mother of two and a teacher in Philadelphia. “We’ve definitely had to make sacrifices in order for my daughters to have reliable daycare, like limiting our personal purchases, not going out to eat as much and going from premium to basic cable.”

Currently, Navarro’s 2-year-old daughter s watched at home by a baby-sitter who is a trusted woman from their church, and her 4-year-old attends a full-day preschool in Mount Laurel. She says the issue of child care, and deciding whether or not to work, is a complicated but common issue for many fellow families in South Jersey.

“I have two sisters: One could stay home if she wanted to, but she prefers to work, while my other sister would like to stay home but has no choice but to work. I envy some moms that are able to be more flexible or work part-time and spend more time with their kids,” she says.

Woolwich resident Jenny Nerney says most of her career choices have been largely based on how it would impact child care. She was a college professor for seven years, and while she loved that job, she didn’t make enough to afford child care, so she switched from that to an insurance company. “At the time we had two kids, and once we had our third, putting them in child care was more than my salary, so I stayed home,” Nerney says. “Even then, one income wasn’t enough to make ends meet so I ended up watching some of the neighbors’ kids to help supplement the income.”

Nerney’s kids are now all in school, so she recently started working again. “I appreciated that this job was flexible and lets me work one day from home, and I have a babysitter for before and after-school care,” she says.

Paying for a head start
From the outside looking in, it might be difficult to understand why child care—specifically high-quality child care—is so expensive or even how children under 5 can benefit from it.

Navarro has witnessed huge changes in her daughter since starting child care. “She is more social and her speech is better. She is writing and grasping her pencil better than before, making new friends, learning Spanish in a weekly lesson and becoming more athletic and team minded,” she says.

Those close to the issue say these early years are crucial to a child’s development. A 2013 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), says during those first five years the brain develops more than at any other time in their lives. Diane Dellano, policy analyst and one of the ACNJ report’s authors, says children need a warm, nurturing environment. “Putting children in this environment with strong health and safety standards and highly qualified staff helps get them ready for school and ultimately impacts the workforce,” she says.

There are several factors that contribute to the cost of care, says Dellano. “Staffing is the No. 1 cost. High- quality child care has low caregiver-to-child ratios, and in New Jersey regulations require one adult for every four infants,” she says. “Then you have to consider the qualifications, the degrees and certifications of the staff, which require the centers to pay higher salaries to those who have the additional credentials.”

Even though this may make costs more expensive, offering competitive salaries attracts the best talent, and parents find that important. “When we were looking at daycare centers we had a few important factors in mind,” says Navarro. “One was a trained staff with certified teachers.”

Camille Banks is director of Bright Beginnings Academy, with locations in Cherry Hill and Washington Township serving infants through kindergarten. Banks says she understands that early education and quality child care is a big expense for families. “We try to stay affordable and competitive by working with our families, offering various discounts, flexible payment options and flexible schedules of two to five days per week,” she says. “The cost of child care is derived from recruiting and maintaining a highly qualified, educated, experienced staff; maintaining a lower-than-mandated adult- to-child ratio for safety and education; and providing the resources and materials to allow for the best education and child care for the families we serve.”

Pre-school classes are led by degreed and certified teachers, and infant/toddler staff has or are working toward a CDA (Child Development Associate) credential. The competitive environment also equates to low turnover. Some of Bright Beginnings’ team members have been serving students since 1983, and staff are regularly incentivized to exceed their minimum requirements for their annual continuing edu- cation and the pursuit of higher degrees, Banks says.

Jennifer Blumberg, a mom of two who lives in Voorhees, says curriculum, teacher certification and accreditation were all considered before making a deci- sion on where to send her first, and then her second, child.

“I am the type of person who goes by how I feel,” she says. “I wanted a warm, inviting atmosphere, and I cared about the curriculum, even for a newborn. If the center was accredited also weighed in my decision, and I found out that accredited centers are not as common in our area, so that really narrowed it down.”

Blumberg ultimately decided on the Sari Isdaner Early Childhood Center, which is part of the Katz JCC, and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which is widely considered to be the gold standard for early childhood programs.

According to Donna Snyder, director, early childhood and family engagement for Katz JCC, this accreditation means they offer developmentally appropriate curricu- lum and meet higher standards than what the state requires. “Head teachers need to be certified, and we have assistants 1 and assistants 2, which can be a mix of those with two-year degrees or those with early childhood experience,” says Snyder.

Blumberg admits there was a bit of sticker shock when it came to paying for child care. “It is almost like sending them to college,” she says. “It felt like I was working just to pay for child care, but right from the beginning I saw the benefits. My son started interacting with other children and through education and play I watched him blossom. [Both my sons are] good at playing independently, and [their] confidence is incredible. There are a lot of activities offered, like music, swimming. School is fun for them.”

Snyder says she sees that affordability is a challenge for families. “I can understand how some families question why they should work at all. But we do offer financial assistance and we try to fundraise to increase the amount of scholarships so families in need can get a bit of help,” she says. “It’s hard for parents because they can find other options out there for less money but they won’t get the same level of care.”

This is a top concern of ACNJ. “If families can’t afford care, they end up relying on unregulated care through families or neighbors, which is less reliable and may have safety issues the parent isn’t aware of,” says Dellano. “From our perspective, we are concerned with stability for the child.”

Finding alternatives
The standard morning-to-evening, Monday-Friday child care isn’t always the best solution for every family, so parents do lean on family or friends for support.

“I’ve had to make it work through a combination of crafty scheduling, part- time, cost-based child care, and my mom,” says Linda Payne, a Cherry Hill single mother of two. Although her kids are now school-age, summertime care still needs to be covered. “I’ve never been able to afford an all-day child care program while I work five days a week, so I usually do three days a week and my mom will pick up the other two [days]. Even when the kids were attending daycare, I could only enroll them part-time because full-time was cost prohibitive, and at the time I was attending law school so I didn’t have the choice to stay home with them.”

Even though she has only used child care on a largely part-time basis, Payne has calculated her annual child care costs to be in the range of 20 to 40 percent of her salary. “Only since changing jobs recently has the ratio become a little more palatable. Still, while I’m now making a good salary, I’m just now able to make ends meet since I’ve gone into debt every year prior in order to pay for child care. I’m still paying off child care debts.”

For Nikki and Jason Ronca of Maple Shade, their schedules presented the primary challenge to a traditional child care center. Jason is a police officer with a rotating schedule, and Nikki works at the Wharton School of Business, and they have two children under 2—with a third on the way.

“Most formal daycares have a mandatory four or five days, but if my husband only works three days one week, I would rather have the kids home with him,” says Nikki Ronca. “When we first started looking at traditional options, we realized the prices were astronomical, plus there were all these rules and parameters, like dropping off and picking up at certain times. From the get-go we were turned off by that.”

So they found a solution that works for them, using a mix of family.

“My husband has the boys on the days he is off, my mother-in-law has them one day a week and on the other days we need coverage, my sister—who lives around the corner—watches them, along with her own two kids,” says Ronca. “Some days we may need my stepmom to pick them up from my sister.” Ronca plans the schedule three months in advance, plugging in everyone’s availability and finding out if there will be any gaps in coverage. “It’s a well choreographed song and dance,” she says.

Traditional daycare was not an option for Eliza Babcock, a realtor who lives in Haddonfield. “I don’t have an office job, so daycare meant I was paying for time I didn’t need, and on top of that, my daughter wouldn’t take a bottle so I felt like a nanny was the only way I could come in and out, get everything done and I’m able to work,” she says. “A nanny was the most expensive route, but she does everything: takes the kids to the doctor, my son to and from school, activities, play group. It breaks the bank but I feel like it’s the right choice and it’s only a few years to get through financially.”

Relief in sight?
Costs for high-quality day care show no signs of slowing. Since the middle of 2009, the cost of child care and nursery school has increased at a 2.9 percent annual average, outpacing the inflation rate of 1.6 percent in the same seven-year period, according to the Department of Labor. Savings are most likely going to have to come in the form of tax breaks.

Currently, parents can claim the maximum amount of care expenses of $3,000 for one person or $6,000 for one or more. New Jersey is one of the few states that does not have its own tax credit, but a bill (A331) pending in state legislature aims to change that. Babcock says tax deductions would help her. “Right now I’m paying a private person with personal checks and I might not be able to deduct that,” she says. “I would love better options on deduction and tax breaks to offset my decision.”

Navarro says she would like to see early childhood programs made more of a priority in New Jersey. “The Philadelphia school district has a free program for 3-and 4-year-olds,” she says. “Why do some states offer it and others don’t? Philadelphia offers full-day kindergarten, but my town only offers half day.”

This issue is echoed by Payne, who says Cherry Hill (which offers half-day kindergarten) doesn’t have enough spots in its “tuition-based” kindergarten program to cover the other half of the day for each student.

With the election behind us, families wonder what the new administration will do for the issue. On his website, President-elect Donald Trump’s child care plans include “rewriting the tax code to allow working parents to deduct from their income taxes child care expenses for up to four children ... incentivizing employers to provide child care at the workplace ... provid[ing] six weeks of paid leave to new mothers,” among others mentioned.

As the Trump administration transitions, there is hope this economic issue stays in the spotlight.

“I wish we could predict what will happen, but child care does seem to be a bipartisan issue,” says the ACNJ’s Dellano. “Ivanka Trump seems to be a spokesperson for the child care piece of his agenda and we hope some of those things will come to fruition, but a lot may be put back on the states to make the decision.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 9 (December, 2016).
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Author: Liz Hunter

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