Credit: BBC Creative / Unsplash

Of the 32,000 or so children under the age of 5 in Santa Barbara County, many have been in childcare nearly since birth, but what all parents may not know is that the average monthly cost of infant care is roughly equivalent to tuition at UC Santa Barbara. This is one of the factoids Maria Chesley brought to the Goleta City Council during a presentation on Tuesday of a childcare report conducted by Dr. Chesley through the United Way for Goleta and the City of Santa Barbara.

A median-income family with a preschooler and an infant in full-time care could expect to spend 37 percent of their earnings on childcare costs alone, the report stated, with infant care averaging $1,481 per month. Nine months at UCSB costs $13,104 for a California-residing undergraduate. Added to the expense was the frustration just trying to find good childcare. Parents said it was largely word-of-mouth, centers lacked online reviews, staying on a wait list required frequent check-ins, and one parent compared it to the Hunger Games. Along with the inflated cost of living on the county’s south coast, childcare needs created a dual crisis, observed James Kyriaco, a Goleta councilmember who has long advocated for more childcare.

When it comes to children, market economics just don’t seem to work. “It seems inconceivable, when there’s so much demand — 2,000 people on a waiting list! — that the private sector can’t solve this problem,” said Kyriaco. The United Way report stated that no new childcare centers had opened in the past two years, which meant the region was not attracting childcare business owners, the study’s survey suggested. Caregivers had noted previously that the pandemic had caused them to open and close repeatedly, and the distance rules had sent some out of business.

Part of the reason was staffing. In-home caregivers are not required to have training or education in the field, but anyone working in a licensed childcare facility needs classroom hours and/or teaching experience for the age level. Even with the required training, pay was still considered very low.

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Goleta has taken steps toward adding childcare and daycare by removing the city’s development impact fee from business licenses for in-home providers of childcare and by adding developer incentives to construct and operate facilities.

A new state law may cut childcare crowding by as much as one-quarter. Set to come fully into effect in 2025, the new rule adds all 4-year-olds to the public school system and also 3-year-olds with special needs or from low-income families. The transition to “universal prekindergarten” has brought a new set of challenges to school districts, but Chesley anticipated it would open many spaces in preschools. Councilmember Stuart Kasdin predicted a revolution in the whole industry, but Chesley thought keeping an eye on infants would be important, as the adult-to-child ratio for infant care is 1:4, where it is 1:12 for toddlers on up.

The United Way study surveyed nearly 500 families and 10 companies representing 11,000 employees. Families at all income levels complained of long waitlists, especially for infant care. Among the companies participating, not all were aware of the problems their employees might be having with caregivers, and some were not sure who had children or how old they were, said Melinda Cabrera, United Way’s vice president of strategic partnerships, who worked on the report with Dr. Chesley.

For Cabrera, the work they were doing with Goleta and Santa Barbara, whose City Council will receive the presentation next Tuesday, was an opportunity to raise awareness about the problems resulting from a lack of childcare. Suggestions like scholarships for the children from families in the “missing middle,” those who made too much for subsidized childcare programs but not enough to easily afford childcare costs, could result from the conversations they were having, she said. Another hoped-for goal was listings of childcare providers to gain an understanding of what was lacking and to give parents a reliable resource when looking for someone to watch over their children.

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