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Citing ‘a crisis with child care,’ officials urge more subsidies, training

High costs and low availability of child care in San Diego County are causing financial strain on families and keeping some parents out of the workforce, local leaders said at a forum Tuesday where they recommended subsidies and worker training programs.

“The challenge that we face is that in California the cost of child care is more than the cost of a four-year university,” Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, said. “So obviously that causes a lot of people that we would otherwise have in the workforce to stay home.”

Levin spoke at a roundtable discussion on the child care shortage held at Kids by the Sea child care center in Encinitas on Tuesday, along with San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson Remer and other local officials.

“We absolutely have a crisis with child care in the country and in San Diego County,” Lawson-Remer said. “I have a 3-year-old, so I engage in this struggle every day.”

Speakers discussed the shortfalls in San Diego’s child care network, ranging from soaring prices to declining numbers of providers and low pay, and described efforts to fill those gaps.

Government agencies should offset costs to families and fund professional development programs to help child care centers staff up, Lawson-Remer said. Speakers also said businesses can should consider offering child care vouchers or on-site facilities to attract employees.

Levin said he would support tax breaks for companies that include child care as a benefit.

Nearly half of children under five with working parents don’t have a licensed care option, according to a survey published by the University of San Diego in April.

Families with an infant and a toddler in licensed day care spend, on average, nearly $34,000 per year on child care, the survey found. Levin contrasted that cost with in-state tuition for UC San Diego, whose undergraduate tuition is listed as $17,361 for the 2022-23 academic year.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the challenges of securing child care, as mothers left their jobs for lack of adequate care for their kids. Although businesses and schools have reopened, many families still find that care isn’t affordable or even available.

Many local child care centers closed during the pandemic, and most that remain aren’t turning a profit, said Kim McDougal, the vice president of social services for the YMCA of San Diego County.

Half of San Diego child care providers are just breaking even, she said, while 28 percent are operating at a loss. Poor wages create high staff turnover, and child care centers can’t hire workers to fill those jobs, leading to long waiting lists for scarce slots, speakers said.

Without good options, families cobble together miscellaneous options, often tapping family members to fill in the gaps, McDougal said.

“Parents are forced to create a patchwork of care for their families and often leave the workforce,” she said.

Federal proposals to subsidize day care for low- and middle-income families fell through with the failure of the Build Back Better Act last year, Levin said.

That bill’s provisions would have extended child tax credits of $250 to $300 per month, provided paid family leave and limited child care expenses to 7 percent of income for families earning up to 250 percent of the median state income. It would have paid for those benefits by imposing a minimum corporate tax, Levin said.

That bill passed the House of Representatives in November but lacked enough votes in the Senate. Its replacement legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law this month, includes no child care spending.

Levin said the individual pieces of legislation that would have authorized those programs are still active, and Congress may revisit them this year or in its next session.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-San Diego, was not part of the roundtable but has made child care a legislative priority, securing $4 million for affordable child care for military members and city of San Diego staff, earmarking $1 million for local child care providers to expand their services and partnering with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to introduce legislation to guarantee affordable child care for all families.

Lawson-Remer said child care provides broad social and economic benefits, including freeing parents for full employment and improving children’s future academic and professional potential. However, parents often bear the full cost of that service.

“The value child care brings is so high, but these are collectively shared benefits, and the cost to train people and pay them (to provide child care) is significantly higher than any family can afford,” Lawson-Remer said.

She contrasted that with K-12 schools, where public investment provides educational opportunities to all students regardless of their families’ income.

“For some reason, we have decided that kids, when they turn 5, are worth investment — but before that, they’re going to magically grow themselves,” she said.

She said it’s also hard to convince workers to enter a low-paying career, particularly if they must incur student debt to earn credentials, so local and federal programs should invest in training child care workers and help ensure fair pay and benefits.

San Diego County currently offers child care subsidies to families who qualify and also helps fund training programs, Lawson-Remer noted.

Officials are considering opening a county-run child care center at the county’s Kearny Mesa location, she said. She is also working with the San Diego Workforce Partnership to identify and prioritize child care needs for local investment.