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Serious Child Care Support*
Laura Billings Posted on Tue, Oct. 15, 2002 LAURA BILLINGS:
New parents need seriously subsidized day care LAURA BILLINGS Pioneer Press Columnist
I was on the phone with a friend of mine who is pregnant for the first time, and still at that stage when wearing elastic panel pants makes one feel ripe rather than elephantine. So I brought up the subject as gently as I could: "Have you figured out what you'll do with the baby once you go back to work?''
"No, that's really the least of our worries,'' she said, listing the style of the crib, the color of the nursery walls, and narrowing the list of 31 names as her most pressing pre-due date decisions.
I saw no point in spoiling her fun, knowing that soon enough she will be confronted with the great and terrible Catch-22 that faces all working parents the realization that although you can't really afford not to work, you can't really afford day care either.
Perhaps you saw this depressing paradox in reporter Bob Shaw's front-page story on Sunday, which reported that the average cost of day care for an infant in Ramsey County is $12,000 - about what you'd spend to get your kid through her first two years at the University of Minnesota. This is one of the reasons the U.S. Department of Education's Early Education Finance Demonstration Project has given the Greater Minneapolis Day Care Association a $350,000 grant to come up with some solutions, possibly college-style financing for little kids.
After all, unlike the heavily subsidized state university system, early child-care costs rest entirely on parents, few of whom are in a position to be saving up as they do for higher ed.
"Unless you're very forward thinking, day care costs can be overwhelming," said Ann Kaner-Roth, executive director of Child Care Works, a statewide coalition of organizations working on early childhood education issues. "I think many parents are shocked.''
Shocked is the right word. When I started my search for day care, I figured Minnesota was a good place to be looking - more than 70 percent of mothers of young children are in the work force, the highest such percentage in the country.
But it turns out that even if you do know a nice neighbor lady who takes care of kids - the child-care solution Gov. Jesse Ventura once advised to the state's cash-strapped working moms - chances are she's got a waiting list. According to Kaner-Roth, for every two Minnesota kids in the day-care age range, there's just one licensed day-care slot.
This may explain why I am No. 144 on a waiting list for the infant room at a highly recommended college campus day- care center. The staff says the list is now three years long, which is why the woman who is No. 143 is not yet pregnant.
This may also explain why I wept at one day-care center we visited, where the children had runny noses and rasping coughs, and half the staff stood outside in the cold taking an indifferent cigarette break.
"I don't blame you for crying,'' my husband said. "That place was horrible.''
But I wasn't crying just because it was horrible. I was crying because it was horrible and we'd have to take a second mortgage to pay for it.
Talk to parents of young children and you will find that this is a common experience. And yet, so far, it is an experience parents endure on their own, making financial sacrifices, working second shifts, cobbling together tag-team schedules and trying not to complain.
"Clearly, we value the importance of good quality K-12 education and we see it as a public responsibility to pay for it,'' says Kaner-Roth. Though studies show quality pre-kindergarten education is just as vital, she said, "parents still feel it's all their responsibility."
And yet, if child-care costs continue to spiral - they've already gone up by 58 percent in the last decade, double the inflation rate - we'll clearly have to look for better ways to make this work. The Early Education Finance Demonstration Project is expected to make its recommendation 18 months from now, a little too late for my pregnant friend.
But is it too much to hope there might be some new solutions - maybe day-care savings plans, or seriously subsidized child care - by the time her firstborn is ready for college? Laura Billings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 228-5584.
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