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Day care costs create obstacles for working poor
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These children are doing a craft project in the home of Colleen Hill of Bemidji. Hill typically cares for more than a dozen kids each day. About half of her parent clients receive state assistance for child care costs. For the rest, the costs are out-of-pocket. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Each day, two-thirds of school age children in Minnesota are cared for by someone other than their parents. For many families, that's a huge expense. While lower income families can receive financial assistance for child care, many working families don't qualify for help. The high cost of day care is pushing many working families to the financial edge.

Bemidji, Minn. — It's lunch time for the kids at Caring Hands Child Care Center in Blackduck, Minnesota. Most of the kids' parents are factory workers at a nearby fabrics plant. While more than half the parents get financial assistance for their daycare costs from the state, the rest are on their own.

"I think it's a struggle to decide whether it's worth it to work or not, because it ends up taking so much of their salary to pay the day care," says Linda Ferdig, coordinator of the center.

Ferdig says there are some parents who end up with as little as $20 from their paycheck after they pay the child care bill.

The state's child care assistance program works on a sliding fee system. Generally, those making under $20,000 a year qualify. She says there are lots of families who are just over that line.

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Image Paula Pereira pays $600 per month for daycare

"In Minnesota, the poor, I think, are pretty well taken care of as far as day care," Ferdig says. "But it's more -- almost like the middle class -- it's both people working. A lot of times they even do have some education. They definitely know how to work ... And they kind of fall through the middle and then they don't qualify for anything. And they have a hard time of it."

The numbers show that's true. One child in day care costs, on average, $100 a week. Infant care is even more expensive. Paula Pereira is a licensed teacher at the Caring Hands Center in Blackduck. She also brings her infant son there. That costs nearly $600 a month. And Pereira's family gets no state child care assistance. Their income is just over the line.

"It's hard, because I feel that my whole family would be benefitting if I stayed home and took care of my own son, instead of coming here to pay for someone else to care for him," says Pereira. "It's frustrating not to ... qualify for some help ... There are days when our checking account says zero."

Child care advocates say the choices for some people are very limited. Their income is too high to qualify for federally-funded Headstart programs. But they can't afford more expensive preschool programs.

Peg Millar, a family service coordinator for the Community Action Program for Beltrami and Cass counties, says it's an issue of fairness.

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Image Daycare provider Linda Ferdig

"I feel all children should have the opportunity for a quality preschool program, not just those who can afford it, and not just those at the poverty level," says Millar. "And that's kind of your working poor -- because we have children, we have over-income families that can't get in ... That is working poor to me. They are struggling ... And a lot of times, those are the families that really miss out."

There are groups advocating for change. Todd Otis is director of a two-year-old non-profit organization called Ready 4 K. Otis says parents, especially low-income parents, should do a better job advocating for their kids.

Ready 4 K wants to strengthen early childhood programs like Headstart, so more children can participate. But Otis says right now there's not enough money. Fewer than half the kids eligible are enrolled.

"A lot of kids are looking through the bakery window and wishing that they could, but they are not in that program," says Otis.

Otis says the current approach to child care and early childhood education in Minnesota is too scattershot. He says the state needs a more consistent approach.

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Image Peg Millar says all kids should have access to high quality daycare

"If you have enough money, you're bound to be able to avail yourself of really quality early childhood experiences," Otis says. "And it shouldn't be the case that how well-off you are so dramatically dictates the quality of child care that people have available to them."

And that's a huge debate -- how to make quality care available to everyone, even the working poor. The Wilder Research Center, based in the Twin Cities, has examined child care issues. Researcher Richard Chase says something called universal preschool is getting a lot of attention nationwide and in Minnesota.

"It's bad timing this year, of course, with the huge state budget deficit," says Chase. "But there's people talking about the importance of changing our thinking from K-12 to things like E-12, meaning early education, before kindergarten. For some kids, they need that early start, so (it would be good) to make it sort of universally available."

Chase says when the state's budget situation improves, such ideas will gain momentum.

"I think that there will be serious efforts placed in promoting that idea of early education and how we can fund it," Chase says. "That will be sort of the next area to focus on."

In 2001, a study by the Wilder Research Center showed that more than half of low-income families are not aware child care assistance is available. Only 12 percent of families that would qualify for help actually receive it.

One reason may be that many children are cared for by grandparents or other extended family members. Donna Schmidt, who works with the day care assistance program in Beltrami County, says some low-income people are too proud to ask for help.

"There is a stigma. ... This is still classified as the welfare office. And we don't like to be called that anymore," Schmidt says. "We are here to help people when we can. When people think they're coming in here, they don't want to have a handout ... And there isn't anything that should be embarrassing about it."

Government studies say families shouldn't spend more than 10 percent of their income on child care. The Wilder study showed families earning less than $20,000 spend nearly one-third of their annual income on child care. Families making between $20,000 and $45,000 devote about one-quarter of their income to day care costs.

Many working poor families spend up to half their income on housing. When you add that to day care costs, it doesn't leave much for anything else -- like food.

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