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Does it Pay to Work? Riverwest Families Struggle with the Rising Cost of Childcare

by Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle

It is early morning in February. Mom Doe has just said goodbyes to her little ones at the door of their daycare center. She is on her way to the corner of Holton and Burleigh to wait for the #14 that will take her to work. Recently divorced, she has found herself struggling to pick up the slack and in desperate need of help to meet the high cost of child care. The 31-year-old CNA is the single mother of two preschool children, both still in diapers, and earns just $10.25 at her first shift job. “I need to work, but it’s like I’m paying just to be away from my kids. After the bill (child care) is paid on Friday, I don’t have much (money) left,” she said of the effect of childcare costs on her family. Access to quality, affordable childcare is perhaps the biggest barrier to employment. While there are safe, enriching childcare environments out there, it’s no secret that many childcare situations leave much to be desired. Childcare centers have been growing like weeds since parents were catapulted off the welfare rolls, courtesy of Welfare to Work, and the inner city has seen the fastest growth of regulated childcare providers, family daycare homes in particular. The increased demand for childcare, along with the county’s faster and higher reimbursement rate, accounts for a large part of this growth. Also, many Welfare to Work participants found the transition from welfare to childcare provider to be a suitable one. There are significantly more places to send children, more dollars allotted to help pay for the care, but what is the quality of care being received? Is a parent better off staying home? A high price to pay A large number of households in Riverwest are headed by single parents, the majority being women, and as much 25% of a family’s income may go towards child care, especially in families with children under age three. And even households with two parents employed may find it difficult to find quality childcare within their budget. Such is the case with Renee and Anthony, a young married couple with a three year old and newborn. Both are educators and Renee is a full-time student. “We don’t qualify for child care aid, but we don’t make enough to not feel financially stretched at the end of the month. Seems like if I stayed home with my kids, we’d be okay living off my husband’s paycheck, since half of mine goes to pay for the child care,” Renee explains. And although Renee carries the burden of budget-squeezing child care, she also understands the plight of child care teachers. Many child care providers receive low wages, which can make them feel undervalued and which Renee believes accounts for the high staff turnover rate she has observed at her children’s child care center. Brenda McGhee has found her experience with childcare in Riverwest to be a semi-sweet one. The mother of four works two jobs and is grateful her children are finally all school-aged. She only has to worry about childcare fees during the summer months. But when Brenda first moved into the neighborhood, six years ago, she paid childcare expenses completely out of her own pocket for her two youngest children, year–round. “I had a hard time paying for it but I liked the center and felt they treated my kids good. It was a relief when I got on W2,” she says. Brenda admitted to having her teen daughters provide care for the younger ones on occasion for a few hours at a time, in order to avoid the hassle of obtaining drop-in care during non-traditional hours. She was quick to express the importance of not leaving “children in charge of children” for an extended length of time. “They (teenagers) can’t handle it.” Unfortunately, some families have no choice but to leave older siblings in charge, compromising the quality of care. Despite the existence of after-school programs and community centers here in Riverwest, youth are often seen hanging out with little ones in tow. At the same time, a number of stay-at-home parents aren’t there out of economic luxury, but necessity. They have decided that it doesn’t pay to work and/or feel their children benefit more having a parent at home full-time. On the bright side, there are agencies here in Milwaukee that strive to bridge this serious disconnect. Wisconsin is known as one of the top ten states regarding high quality childcare standards. Strong families are essential in building a healthy community, so families need to be aware of the resources and support available to help overcome this dilemma. Employers may also be able to assist workers in obtaining adequate childcare services. But that doesn’t address the problem of parents who have to pay a big chunk of each paycheck, or daycare workers who earn far less than they deserve for the important task they do. Searching for her bus pass, Mom Doe ends the 15-minute interview…”I guess your real question is, is it too expensive (childcare), or am I just too poor?” Some of the names of individuals interviewed have been changed at their request.


The Wisconsin Childcare Resource and Referral Network provides a listing of all the agencies available to assist parents in obtaining childcare to meet their individual needs. The network also provides information on qualifying for the childcare subsidy. Call 1-888-713-KIDS (5437). 4Cs, (community coordinated child care), is available to connect parents to childcare in the area through a referral service. Call 414-562-2650. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 2 – March 2002