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Cild Care Wars
Children of Working Poor Are Day Care's Forgotten

At 5 the other morning, Marlene Garrett had her 11-month-old baby in her arms and was guiding her other two sleep-dazed children, ages 3 and 4, through the darkness to the baby sitter's.

''Mama has to go to work so she can buy you shoes,'' Mrs. Garrett told them. She had just that day moved up the economic ladder, from a job selling sneakers for $5.25 an hour to a job behind the counter at a bagel cafe for $6 an hour. Her shift started at 6, and she did not want to be late.

Seven blocks on foot, and then she was hugging her children and handing them over to Vivienne, a Bahamian woman who works nights at the self-service laundry where Mrs. Garrett does her wash.

Vivienne's small apartment was clean but sparsely furnished. There were no toys or books in sight, just a television that the children spent most of the next 10 hours watching. For this, Mrs. Garrett scrapes together $50 a week -- a little less than half the cost for just one child in most licensed day care centers here.

Mrs. Garrett hurried down the stairs and set off for work, three miles away. The family car died a month ago.

''It breaks my heart, leaving them there,'' said Mrs. Garrett, who arrived in Florida from Jamaica in 1989. ''I want them in a learning environment. This is the best I can do right now. It's an emergency situation.''

The experts agree: for Mrs. Garrett and tens of thousands of other low-income working parents nationwide, child care is a perpetual emergency.

Low-income working families are, in many ways, the forgotten class in the national debate over child care. They make too little to afford the choices of professional women -- whether to use a nanny or an au pair, to work part time or full time. And many make too much to qualify for government programs. Others make little enough to qualify, but are low on long waiting lists while priority is given to women leaving the welfare rolls for jobs.

Florida offers a good illustration of this squeeze on the working class. More Federal money is available for child care here because of the new welfare law: Florida added over $100 million to its child care budget this year. And the state has a program to provide assistance to nonwelfare families whose income is below 150 percent of the poverty level ($17,775 for a family of three).

But like other states under pressure to meet the work requirements of the new law or risk severe penalities, Florida has budgeted the bulk of its child care money to welfare recipients moving to jobs.

There are 25,000 children of low-income families receiving no welfare benefits who are on the waiting list for assistance in Florida, and an additional 39,000 who are eligible, according to Susan Muenchow, executive director of the Florida Children's Forum, a statewide nonprofit child care resource and referral agency. Marlene Garrett's children are among those waiting.

''From a child-care standpoint,'' Ms. Muenchow said, ''you're better off on welfare.''

When Staying Home Is Not an Option

The lives of women like Mrs. Garrett are ruled by hard economic facts. ''If my finances permitted, I'd love to stay home,'' said Mrs. Garrett, whose husband, Rod, works in a factory making hospital curtains. ''Who's a better caretaker than Mom?''

But staying home is not an option. Her husband takes home about $250 a week. Her own $200 a week helps put food on the table and pay the $400 monthly rent. Mrs. Garrett, who keeps a folder with her expenses neatly itemized, says she owes nearly $5,000 in medical bills. The family does not have health insurance.

Welfare is not an option. ''I don't want to plant that seed in my children,'' she said. ''I want to work.''

When it comes to child care, Mrs. Garrett, who is 36, has almost no choices. She would like to put her children, Hasia, 11 months; Angelique, 4; and Scherrod, 3, in her church day care center and preschool, Holy Temple Christian Academy, but at $180 a week -- about $90 less than what most licensed day care centers in Fort Lauderdale charge for three children -- it is beyond her reach.

The church day care center had seemed possible back in September, when Mrs. Garrett was earning $8 an hour as a home health aide for the elderly. (It helped that she was often able to bring her children to work.) She took her children for their shots and put money down on school uniforms, at $32 apiece. But then her car gave out, and with her hours long and unpredictable, and bus service irregular, she had to give up the work she says she was born to do. There was no money for another car. Overnight, her family was downwardly mobile.

''I took back the uniforms,'' she said. ''They credited me for them.''

Mrs. Garrett has to make do with the child care she can afford, and Vivienne is what she can afford.

Mothers like her improvise fragile arrangements that inevitably break down. The friend, neighbor or relative who was looking after their children gets sick, or goes to work, or moves away, or simply becomes unavailable, and they have to find someone else to take their children.

''How can you get a job if you don't have day care?'' said Christina Burdhimo, 26, a waitress who is raising two children, ages 2 and 4, alone. But without a subsidy -- she is also on a waiting list for one -- she cannot afford day care. A lot of places want $94 per week per child,'' said Ms. Burdhimo, who is divorced.

Her father and her mother-in-law have been alternating baby-sitting duties. ''My mother-in-law will do it a couple more months,'' she said.

Regulated child care in Florida costs $4,000 a year or more, and many families are doing without other essentials in order to pay for it. Kelly McKnight, who earns $8 an hour monitoring burglar alarms, moved her two daughters, ages 3 and 4, into her father's mobile home, in Hollywood, after her husband left her. It was the only way she could afford the $135 a week for a licensed day care center, she said.

Her father, a retired correctional officer, helps with the child care, but the situation is far from ideal: the mobile home is in an adults-only community. Ms. McKnight's children can be there only temporarily.

After two years on the waiting list, Ms. McKnight began receiving her subsidy six months ago.

In rural areas, where people are spread out, and with public transportation often nonexistent, makeshift arrangements with friends and family can become even more difficult.

Wendi Slay has a 3-month-old baby and works for $7.20 an hour as a collections clerk for a credit union in Pensacola, in northern Florida. Ms. Slay, who is not married, drives 100 miles a day to take her baby, Chandler, to either her aunt's house or her father's, and then to work -- and back again to pick up Chandler, and head home. ''I sing to him all the way home,'' she said.

Ms. Slay's aunt takes Chandler on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Her father takes him on Thursdays and Fridays, his days off from his job as a landfill supervisor.

''I don't know how much longer my aunt is going to be able to do it,'' Ms. Slay said in a telephone interview. What will she do for child care when her aunt stops helping? ''Wing it, I suppose,'' she said.

Quality Bows To Availability

In all this scrambling, many experts say, low-income women do not have the luxury to worry about quality. ''They're desperate,'' said Helen Blank, director of the child-care division of the Children's Defense Fund. ''They miss a day of work, and they lose their job.''

Recent research on rapid brain development shows that an enriching, nurturing environment is important for infants and toddlers. Studies show that children in low-quality care can have delayed cognitive and language development, behave more aggressively toward others and react poorly to stress.

Mrs. Garrett, who keeps on a shelf in her children's bedroom a set of 1961 World Book Encyclopedias that was a gift from the family of an elderly man she was caring for, does not need experts to tell her that her children need stimulation. That is what her church offers.

''The children play games,'' she said. ''They go on field trips. They teach them, they train them. My children are bright. You would be amazed at what they would acquire in a year.''

But for her, and for many other low-income parents, it is all they can do simply to find a safe place for their children.

Two years ago, state social service inspectors in Pensacola found a woman running an illegal day care center in her trailer for 20 children under age 4. According to their report, the children were hungry, and watching soap operas and game shows. Two of the children had chicken pox. ''There appeared to be a total lack of stimulation for the children indicated by the abnormal inactivity of all the children,'' the report stated.

The parents, who had no other day care they could afford, were angry that the operation was shut down, according to Becky Kirsch, the executive director of the Children's Service Center, Pensacola's child resource and referral agency.

Waiting for Help, Not Likely to Get It

The Florida Legislature has recently passed two budget amendments, transferring some surplus child-care money for welfare recipients to low-income working families. But there is still a freeze on helping low-income families on the waiting list, and advocates fear that as increasing numbers of welfare recipients go to work, they will need more money for child care -- leaving even less for low-income working families who have not been on welfare.

''We're pitting one group of poor people against another,'' Ms. Muenchow said. ''Many of these parents have no choice but to leave their children in substandard arrangements that are rotting their brains, and jeopardizing their futures.''

She and other advocates say that states should base eligibility for child-care subsidies on income, not welfare status. Only a few states, including Illinois, Washington and Rhode Island, have taken that step.

''The country is focused on moving mothers from welfare to work,'' said Ms. Blank, of the Children's Defense Fund. ''It's not nearly as focused on mothers who are already working to give them the support they need to stay independent, and to keep their children safe.''

There are other sources of assistance: Florida has established a nationally recognized child-care partnership program that encourages businesses to help low-wage employees with child care. About 4,000 nonwelfare children are getting help.

Tammy McLamore, who works for $6.25 an hour as a reservations clerk for a transportation company in Fort Lauderdale, has watched the youngest of her five children, shy, 3-year-old Katie, blossom this fall. The reason: She began attending the highly regarded Jack and Jill Nursery School on a scholarship provided by the school. Last year, her mother says, Katie spent her days stuck in a baby sitter's crowded, dirty apartment, in front of a television with five or six other children.

At 7 one morning, Katie was eagerly boarding the school bus. ''They sing and dance,'' Ms. McLamore said. ''They do activities. Katie talks about all the teachers. She comes home from school and says, 'Want me to teach you a song?' ''

One recent Sunday, Mrs. Garrett, who credits God and her Pentecostal religion with her relentlessly positive attitude, was near tears. ''Vivienne told me she cannot keep my children so early,'' she said. ''She has to take her little girl to school. Her husband's work schedule at the Laundromat is about to be changed. I have to try to find somebody else.''

A day later, Mrs. Garrett said she had offered Vivienne an additional $25 a week. ''She said she will keep my children,'' said Mrs. Garrett, who is still hoping to send her children to Holy Temple Christian Academy.

To that end, she had a promising interview the other day for a second job working room service nights at the local Marriott hotel. She says she will pay Vivienne another $15 to care for her children the extra hours. She hates it that she will have even less time with them, she said.

''It is temporary,'' she said. ''I am doing what I have to do.''

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