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The End-of-Summer Childcare Gap

Home AloneA Working Parent's Nightmare
In the last few weeks of summer, the phone rings off the hook at Parents in a Pinch, a Massachusetts-based childcare agency that specializes in helping parents in Boston and Baltimore find back up childcare. The agency's busiest time of year is between the end of summer camp and the beginning of the next school year.

"All hell starts to break loose," says Barbara Marcus, CEO of Parents in a Pinch. "Many parents have no more vacation days and they need full-time care, but only for a month. People in the real world want a job that's going to last longer than that, so its hard for us to find providers."

Agency director Davida Manon says turnover in the job market can also create hazards for working Moms and Dads.

"I've heard from parents who've recently started jobs and haven't accrued vacation time yet, and they're in a panic because they haven't been there long enough to ask their employer for any flexibility."

In addition, the high costs of care through an agency like Parents in a Pinch - $10 an hour for the first child, $1 for each additional child, plus a daily agency fee of $60 - is enough to keep many parents from even picking up the phone. Unable to afford the expense or the time off from work at a time when businesses are gearing up after a slow summer, many parents feel forced to leave children in substandard arrangements.

"I think people often leave their children with older kids, sometimes older siblings, who may or may not be willing to do it and just drag little kids around with them," observes Arlyce Currie, program director for Bananas, a childcare resource and referral agency near San Francisco. "Kids also get left alone when they shouldn't."

Little Public Help for Parents
While American parents are expected to "go it alone" in patching together child care arrangements, mothers and fathers in many other countries enjoy free or government-subsidized programs for children both during the summer and the school year. Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, notes that France runs a universal summer program for children, offering arts and sports activities four days each week.

"There is no sense of public responsibility for child care in this country, but in France it's just the opposite," Siegel laments. "Yes, they have high taxes, but when I visited in June, I didn't hear a single complaint about taxes to fund programs benefiting children. The French are preoccupied with living well, good clothes and good food, and that same attention is extended to how you raise children."

Unions, Companies Doing More for Parent Members, Employees
Although American parents can only dream of the subsidies available in France, some child care advocates see glimmers of hope on the horizon. Within both unions and corporations, there is increasing talk of the need to provide a safety net of support for families juggling kids and careers.

"I'm encouraged," says Siegel, noting that both the Hotel & Restaurant Workers Union in San Francisco and the Sears Roebuck's division in Los Angeles are looking more closely at childcare benefits and how to provide them.

According to Siegel, Sears is conducting a pilot project in the Los Angeles area to assess its employees' needs for backup care, providing both agency referrals and actual subsidies. The project reflects more than just corporate benevolence; like many large employers, Sears struggles to maintain a dependable, moderately skilled workforce, and hopes childcare assistance will allow more workers to remain on the job.

Yet even with subsidies to help parents pay for care, finding providers remains a serious challenge because pay scales remain low. Parents in a Pinch uses bonuses, gift certificates and awards to keep caregivers on the job. They also broker childcare arrangements, encouraging parents to pool their financial resources to hire a single provider who can run a "mini-camp" for a small group of children. Still, the arrangements are often patchwork at best. At a time when many parents are cashing tax refunds, there seems little indication that the federal government will join labor and industry in searching for solutions to what many now call a crisis in the child care field. "I remember all the way back to 1971, when then-President Richard Nixon vetoed a bill for a national childcare system," recalls Patty Siegel. "So here we are, many years later, with no real system in place. People say its pie in the sky. I say it's about time we did something like that for kids."

More on: Transitions

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