City officials call it a crisis on par with affordable housing
It was a few years ago at a neighborhood gathering when the South End’s Michelle Hediger was chatting with fellow Southenders Desi Murphy and his wife, Paola Abello – who was pregnant at the time, and she warned them about the crisis that was about to come upon them once their son was born.
It was an unspoken, and somewhat unknown, stress that has come to terrorize the growing number of young families having children and snubbing the ‘burbs to stay in the city.
Most only hear about it in whispers or side conversations when they are expecting a child, but it is two words that these three neighbors only narrowly survived.
Those two words are ‘child care.’
The infrastructure for families in the city is still new and untested, especially in a neighborhood like the South End, and it has made child care – particularly affordable child care in the middle ranges – almost an unattainable summit to ascend for many families. It’s one of the main pulls for city families into the suburbs.
“No one tells you as soon as you have a positive pregnancy test that you should get on the waiting list for day care,” said Murphy recently, while holding his son, Liam, at a South End coffee shop.
Added Abello, “I went to a center in my first trimester after friends told me to. I felt ridiculous. I thought it was too early. Then I heard that there was a waiting list and I suddenly realized that we had come too late. We were told we had to wait 10 months to get in. We could get him in by November and I had to be back to work in August.”
Hediger and her husband, who both moved to the South End in 2010 from Manhattan, worked long hours in flexible jobs for several years before starting a family in 2017 and committing to staying in their city community.
It was all walks in the park until it was time to get back to work and the topic of child care rolled around.
Hediger said she started looking for good child care that the family could afford around three months into her pregnancy. She was on five different waiting lists, but her number never came up by the time she needed to start work. They had some family in the area, but no one they could lean on to take care of their new baby.
That’s when they rearranged their lives and their finances to hire a nanny – making a number of sacrifices to how they had hoped to live with their new child.
In irony of ironies, Hediger said, she just got into one of those day cares three weeks ago. Her daughter is now almost 2 years old.
“I just got in three weeks ago to one of the day cares,” she Hediger. “She’s 1.5 years old. It took two years to get into one of the day cares we had looked at. It was crazy. It took a year to get into some of the others, but they were really expensive and it was like another mortgage payment. Ultimately, we decided to choose a nanny because we didn’t have a plan B.”
It’s that kind of stress, she said, that often breaks young families. Many of the most die-hard city dwellers feel forced to move to the suburban areas where there are ample daycare options and the system is much easier.
“You could be going back to work in three weeks and not have anything available,” she said. “That breaks down a lot of people. We hope to have a second child and I’m not going to do this again with day care. I feel it’s the price we have to pay to live in the city. We have to make sacrifices for our children and be able to live in the community we love.”
The City has studied the issue in depth, and is currently working on further study and surveys of parents and child care providers throughout the city – from centers to home-based providers.
Tania Del Rio, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, said the problem in the City neighborhoods is actually at a crisis point.
“We think it’s a crisis similar to the housing crisis, except no one is talking about it,” she said. “The affordability and access is a huge problem…Massachusetts is the most expensive state in the nation for child care. For many, it’s like another mortgage payment and it’s more than tuition for UMass. Parents of children are not surprised by this, but everyone else who hears it is like ‘Whoa!’ If you are a low-wage worker, you have to use family or others to be able to work. The economy ends up riding on the backs of people working for free – such as grandparents, aunts, uncles neighbors and friends.”
Del Rio said the average cost in Massachusetts for a Center is around $20,000 per year, and home-based child care averages $12,000 per year. It’s compounded by the fact that child care workers have huge (and expensive) licensing and certification demands put upon them by the state, but at the same time they are some of the lowest earners in the economy. On average, a child care worker makes $27,000 per year, Del Rio said. Because of that, workers are scarce – especially in the city where the cost of living is higher – and day care facilities cannot find the room or staffing to expand. So, they resort to long waiting lists full of anxious parents.
City Councilor Michelle Wu and several other female councilors toured the city last year to examine all aspects of child care. Originally, she said, they started the effort to focus on the workforce in childcare, but ended up also taking a close look at cost and access for families – which was a major thing they heard at most meetings on the tour.
“One of the big findings was the City of Boston would benefit tremendously from understanding where access points are for childcare,” she said. “There is not a centralized place people can go to understand the system. The other challenge is on the regulation side. We have to know what the gaps are. There might be some families who have access, but it’s more about quality or location. Other parents might be all about cost. Just starting with a centralized set of information so people know who provides it, what the cost is and what the ages are would be progress. It’s a very delicate eco-system now.”
And that ecosystem is exactly where Murphy and Abello found themselves not too long ago. It was like everyone was in on this secret that they didn’t know about, and few besides Hediger were willing to tell them what lie ahead.
“Besides Michelle, we knew someone through Desi’s sister and she was very adamant we go to a daycare to sign up very soon,” said Abello. “She knew someone who had been through a nightmare similar to what we went through. It’s like it’s only the people who know that find their way through it. They seem to be in on this secret…It’s stuff you just don’t know. No one tells you when you’re pregnant you should go to a daycare right away and sign up. It’s unexpected unless someone lets you in on the situation.”
Added Murphy, “It’s tough because you don’t know what to do or where to turn.”
For them, the situation worked out eventually. In fact, after months of frantically looking and waiting, the call came on the day that Abello reluctantly went back to work – and the opening was in a month’s time.
After a harrowing month of using family members and friends to help fill the gaps, they started taking their son to one of the centers they had hoped to get into.
Both said they felt very fortunate with their situation now, but they also said the experience they saw in the rearview mirror is very unfortunate.
“From my experience, there are a plethora of expensive options,” said Hediger. “It seems like there are some options for low-income. There is not much opportunity for the middle ground. You are in a situation where you begin to understand why people move to the suburbs. It’s one less thing to worry about.”