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High cost of child care forcing LI parents to make tough choices

Providers say they're caught in a financial squeeze too, as the rising minimum wage pushes their operating expenses up.

The high cost of day care is squeezing many Long Island parents. Asma Malik and her husband, Rehman Malik, of North Hicksville spoke with Newsday about how the cost of day care for their two children has become a financial burden.  (Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon)

The high cost of day care is squeezing Long Island parents, many of whom say services are so unaffordable it makes more financial sense for one parent to stop working and stay home with the kids, to limit their families to one child, or to move to another state.

On the other side of the equation, care providers say the rising minimum wage and cumbersome state regulations have pushed their operating expenses so high that it's hard for them to remain profitable. 

The cost of child care is an issue across the country, but the financial crunch is worse on Long Island, where the high  cost of living intensifies a problem experts say has no easy solution. 

And the ripple effects reach far beyond the pocketbooks of parents and caregivers.

"When ... child care becomes unaffordable and inaccessible, businesses and the economy can really be hurt," said Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America, an Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit that advocates for affordable care. "We need policies that pay attention to ... two very important pieces of the puzzle: our current workforce and our future workforce." 

President Donald Trump's 2020 budget proposal, released last Monday, calls for $1 billion to stimulate "employer investments in child care for working families." While critics noted the one-time investment will not solve the overall problem, others called it a step in the right direction. 

Stuck in the middle

Carri To DaRin of Levittown, an elementary school reading specialist, and her husband, Bobby DaRin, an operating room nurse, pay $30,000 a year -- nearly 17 percent of their combined $180,000 income -- for day care for 2-year-old Charlie and 8-month-old Jace.

"We pay $2,000 a month for rent, another $1,000 towards our student loans and $2,500 for day care every month. Add those three bills alone -- and nothing else -- and we're already at $5,500,"  To DaRin said.

"But we still have to eat, pay for utilities, phone bills, car payments.... Every two weeks when the bills are due, I'm scrambling, shuffling money around. It makes you feel helpless and trapped." 

Melissa Algerio of Huntington Station said the cost of day care was a key factor in her decision not to have a second child. She pays $1,500 a month at Work of Heart, a day care in South Huntington, for her 22-month-old daughter Chloe's care. 

"Sure it would be nice for her to have a sibling," she said. "But I don't want to feel that intense, high-level stress. I want to enjoy ... not worry." 

Child care is considered "affordable" if it costs no more than 10 percent of a family's income, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Last year, parents across the country spent an average $1,500 a month or $18,000 a year for one child's care, according to a survey by Care.com, an online platform that helps caregivers connect with families seeking care. That would be 10 percent if your income was $180,000.  In Nassau, the 2017 median household income was $105,744; in Suffolk it was $92,838, according to Census figures. 

One in three families spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care, the Care.com survey found.

For many families, child care costs as much as, or more than, putting a roof over their heads. 

The average cost of sending two children to day care outpaces median annual rent costs in all 50 states, and is higher than annual median mortgage costs in 35 states, according to a 2018 Child Care Aware report. New York State had the least affordable child care as a percentage of income, the report found. 

"Parents are spending a higher percent of their income on child care than on almost anything else and are really struggling because of it," Fraga said.

Providers squeezed, too 

"Between the cost of rent, utilities, insurance, food, supplies and then, of course, our biggest expense, employee salaries, we're barely keeping our heads above the water," said Andrea Holmes, owner of Work of Heart, the day care Algerio's daughter attends. "I hear parents say they're living paycheck to paycheck; well, we're surviving tuition to tuition." 

Holmes' 15 employees care for about 60 children. Though minimum wage increases — three in the last three years, to $12 an hour on Long Island — required her to raise the pay of several employees, Holmes said most were already earning more than mandated. "The child care industry is labor intensive and has high turnover, so retaining quality staff is important," she said.  Her workers receive four weeks' vacation, five sick days, paid time to work on lesson plans and a 401K, "but of course, all of this cuts into our bottom line," she said.

Holmes charges about $1,600 a month for infant care and $1,500 a month for toddler care.   

While government subsidies are available to help low-income families with the cost of care, Holmes said her center doesn't participate in the state program. "Most of the families at my school are in that middle class, where despite hurting, [they] wouldn't qualify for any type of financial help, so it just didn't make any sense for us,"  she said. 

Work of Heart offers a limited number of scholarships to families in need, she added.

For Alicia Marks, owner of Marks of Excellence in Amityville, participating in subsidy programs that allow her to welcome low-income families was a no-brainer: Her business would not survive without them. 

More than 90 percent of the children at her center receive subsidized care. 

"That should tell you something," Marks said. "Out of 184 families, only 11 parents are able to pay [the full cost] out of pocket."  

About 10 percent of the nearly 83,000 children enrolled at Long Island's nearly 2,000 licensed day cares receive subsidies. 

To qualify for the help, a family of four in Nassau may have annual gross income of no more than  $50,200; in Suffolk the cap is $43,925, said Jennifer Marino Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk.   Families in the program pay a percentage of the cost of care determined on a sliding scale based on their income, she said. 

The rate that day cares in the subsidy program receive -- $350 per week for infants and $312 for toddlers --  is set by the state and has not been increased in three years. 

Marks says the outdated payment cap paired with the rising minimum wage, high state-mandated provider-to-child ratios (1 to 4 in an infant room and 1 to 5 in a toddler room), and the overall costs of doing business on the Island have made staying afloat a challenge. 

Marks, whose business employs about 30 full-time caregivers, said payroll -- about $40,000 every two weeks -- accounts for 70 percent of her operating expenses.

The latest minimum wage hike forced her to increase the salaries of 16 people, "but in reality [it] meant ... I had to increase the salaries of 24 people -- because I knew I couldn't pay a head teacher the same amount I pay a classroom assistant," she said. "And when you're running a mostly subsidized center, you don't really have the option of passing costs on to customers." 

Marks said she did raise the price of weekly tuition by $5 for the center's 11 private-pay families. 

"They all complained, and I had one parent tell me, 'Those $5, that's a meal I could buy for my family at McDonald's.' What do you say to that? It's such a tough spot to be in." 

"We're doing the best we can, but we too are struggling," Marks said. If the payment cap does not go up, "one more minimum wage increase and I may have to close my doors." 

Long Island's minimum wage is set to go up to $13 on Dec. 31, with additional step increases already approved by the legislature bringing it to $15 by 2021. 

Falling through the cracks 

Mary Cameron, executive director of Uniondale Early Childhood Center in Roosevelt, a nonprofit day care she founded almost 30 years ago, said that if her center were not a nonprofit "and our board members didn't work so hard fundraising, we would've gone under a long time ago."

Cameron said she has not taken home a paycheck in three years. Thankfully, her husband has been able to provide for her, she said. 

"What pains me the most is to see the need of some of the children's families," she said, "those receiving government help and those who don't qualify for it."

Middle-class families are falling through the cracks, Cameron said. "The government needs to pour more money into child care. Young families can't continue spending 25 percent of their incomes, if not more, on child care. Who can live that way?" 

Marino Rojas of the Child Care Council said this "broken system" affects everybody.

"The high price of child care is not only burdensome for families [but also for] our economy, because it limits the workforce and reduces tax revenues," she said.

While meaningful reform will take time, she advocates policies that would cap families’ child care expenses at a percentage of their income, with government making up the difference. 

Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association business group, has said that offering more affordable child care and housing are key factors to keeping younger residents,  essential to meeting workforce needs, on the Island.

Stress, struggle and sacrifices 

Asma Malik and her husband, Rehman Malik, pay more than $3,700 a month —  22 percent of their income and $600 more than the monthly mortgage payment on their North Hicksville home — for child care for their 3-year-old, Amirah, and their 2-year-old, Musa. 

Both Asma, director of admissions at Syracuse University's New York City office, and Rehman, a project manager at a general contracting firm, commute to Manhattan for work and need extended care hours for their kids.

The Maliks drop their children off at Bright Horizons, a day care in Woodbury, at around 7:20 a.m. and pick them up around 6:30 p.m. If they're late to pick them up, they're charged $1 a minute per child. 

"I was late half an hour one day because of a problem with the train," Asma Malik said. "That delay cost me $60." 

"On paper, we have great, well-paying jobs, but in reality when you add it all up -- day care, student loans, property taxes, groceries, utilities, commuting expenses -- everything is so expensive that I'm constantly stressed worrying about money," she said.

Laura Druda Markowitz of Patchogue, a mother of two girls, ages 2 and 8 months, said the high cost of day care led her to consider becoming a stay-at-home mom, but the family's health insurance is tied to her job, "so that was never a real option." 

She and her husband have slashed spending elsewhere: "We barely go on dates, I only get two hair cuts a year, shopping for clothes for myself is out of the question," she said.

For Jennifer Borzumato of Valley Stream, mother to Brianna, 6, and Victoria, 3, staying home "was the only true choice." 

If she had continued in her job as a sales representative, she would have had to earn at least $5,000 a month to cover the cost of day care. 

With Brianna now in first grade and Victoria attending day care a few hours a week, Borzumato and her husband, James Borzumato, were gearing up for her return to work, "but then we found out I was pregnant again," she said.

The situation "puts a lot more stress on my shoulders, because instead of sharing the financial burden with her, it all falls on me," said James, who works three jobs. 

"In an ideal world ....child care would be affordable and I could go back to work; I would love that," Jennifer said. 

 "The reality is that if you're middle-class, you don't qualify for any type of financial aid, and with the high costs of living here, you're just stuck having to make these choices," she said. "So many people, when they found out I was pregnant, called me and asked, so are you gonna move now?"

Parents in New York State spend a higher percentage of their income on child care than those in any other state.

Source:  Child Care Aware 

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