Activists and supporters, led by Democratic state Rep. Linda Lopez, convened a town-hall meeting on Thursday evening, Feb. 8. Scores of people, mostly women, showed up--far more than organizers had been anticipating, Lopez said.
"This tells us how important this topic is, how important this issue is," she said.
Town-hall organizers had encouraged people to decorate and fill out paper dolls with personal messages showing support for child care, and then send them to the Legislature. They hoped the crush of dolls would send a strong signal that Arizona's representatives need to adequately fund child care, because--to paraphrase one woman who offered her opinion--these are the children who are going to be inserting our catheters one day.
The problems facing child care in Arizona are manifold.
In licensed centers, there were 202,303 children in March through June 2006 receiving care subsidized by the state, the Arizona Department of Economic Security reported in its biannual market-rate survey. That represents a 13 percent increase over 2004. (Smaller numbers of children receive care through private homes or other arrangements.)
In addition, Arizona has eclipsed Nevada as the fastest-growing state in the country, according to U.S. Census projections. That means there will only be greater numbers of families and children competing for resources. Indeed, between 2003 and 2005, many needy families were put on waiting lists for child-care subsidies; these waiting lists persist today.
Availability "sucks," according to Tiffany Foreman, who forks over as much as $1,300 a month on care for her two children. "My cost of day care went up with minimum wage going up," she said.
Child care costs between $4,250 and $7,500 per child, per year, according to statistics from the governor's office. The Children's Action Alliance estimates the annual bill per child to be between $4,400 and $8,600.
Regardless of which figures you go with, child care requires a substantial chunk of change, particularly for parents earning low wages--the ones who generally need these services most.
Yet Arizona is still reimbursing child-care providers at rates based on 2000 costs, even though actual costs have increased by one-third since then. In 2006, the DES estimated it spent $165 million on child-care programs, with more than 44,000 children served on average every month.
"Arizona's one of only five states paying subsidies based on 2000 or earlier," said Penelope Jacks, director of the Children's Action Alliance of Southern Arizona. "This kind of care is completely out of reach of Arizona's low-income working families unless we provide them adequate subsidies."
DES reimburses child-care centers directly, with working parents generally paying a required portion of the costs themselves based on their income and family size. The state subsidizes a maximum amount per child, per day, depending on where in the state the child lives. Because there's a cap, child-care centers must absorb rising costs or pass them on to the families they serve. That pinches both providers and parents.
Jacks put the price tag on "adequate subsidies" at an extra $35 million. "However, when you think of it as an investment in our children and our families, it really is a bargain," she said. That's why she's urging support for HB 2687, a bill that would adjust subsidy rates to 2004 inflation levels.
It might occur to some that Proposition 203, passed by Arizona voters last year, would benefit child-care subsidies. Prop 203 levied an 80-cent tax on cigarettes to fund early childhood development and health programs in the state. But Jacks and Lopez both said the proceeds from Prop 203 shouldn't be used to subsidize child care.
"What Proposition 203 is intended to do is to help improve the quality (of early childhood programs)--that sort of thing," Lopez said. "It is not intended to pay for the subsidy, and there are people who would like to try to do that. ... If you look at the language of (Prop 203), it doesn't say anything about paying for subsidies for child care for low-income folks, the working poor."
Even though the costs of child care are rising, the pay that child-care providers take home isn't. Bill Berk, co-owner and director of the Outer Limits School, complained about being unable to attract and maintain well-qualified people. According to activists, the low reimbursement rates propagate low wages, high turnover and an inability to make investments that would increase the quality of care. Profit margins are slim, despite the tendency to believe that administrators are pocketing money while programs suffer.
"I know a lot of people who own child-care centers, and not one of them drives a Mercedes," Berk said.
He said not enough caregivers are being turned out by certification programs such as the Early Childhood Education program at Pima Community College. "I think that's because the field's not very attractive," he said. "People know they're going to work really, really, really hard, and the rewards are not that good."
And even if Outer Limits does put an employee through a certification program, Berk said that quite often, he or she will leave for a better-paying job elsewhere. Statistics show child-care providers are among the lowest-paid workers in the state.
"The way to get high quality is to pay for it," he said, "and so hopefully we can see that happening in the future."