I never begrudge the $1,600 I scrape together every month to pay for my children's excellent child care and early childhood education at the downtown Minneapolis YWCA, but it's not easy. Child care is our family's No. 1 expense.
The care for my 5- and 1-year-old daughters costs hundreds of dollars more than my rent and takes a significant chunk of our family's gross income. Still, knowing that my kids are receiving the best care and education during their most intellectually formative years is worth the price.
Although my husband and I are both college graduates with good jobs, we qualify for a partial scholarship from the YWCA to help keep our childcare costs under 20 percent of our gross income. Even as solid members of the middle class, and with a scholarship, we have gone into debt paying for child care.
Still, my kids are the lucky ones, and I do not regret the expense. Many working families cannot afford to pay for quality child care, and this puts their children at a disadvantage. In Minnesota, such care is a privilege, not a right.
Our financial struggle to afford quality child care leads me to wonder with alarm: What about those who are less fortunate? How do working families with lower incomes, single parents, and those who are unemployed afford it?
Many can't. Thousands of children in our state go without adequate child care and early childhood education. To qualify for childcare assistance in Hennepin County, a family of four needs to earn less than $36,138 per year, total.
This means that two adults working full time may earn no more than $8.68 per hour to qualify for a childcare subsidy; otherwise, they will pay full price for childcare, which can be close to half of their gross income. If you do qualify, then you are added to Hennepin County's childcare-subsidy waiting list. Families applying for subsidies today can anticipate a wait of approximately two years.
According to Hennepin County data, the longer a family must wait, the more likely its members are to be forced to quit their jobs and apply for welfare. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's pending budget cuts do something more profound than keep the state budget in the black -- they widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in Minnesota, and this includes children who will not have equal access to education. We need to find creative ways to fund crucial programs like childcare and early childhood education.
Educators agree that by the time a child enters kindergarten, his or her capacity for learning is basically established. Early childhood education from birth to age 5 is critical to brain development. Early education is even more crucial to the intellectual success of our children than is school-age learning or higher education, as it provides the foundation and fundamentals for both.
We would be outraged if thousands of Minnesota's children were denied access to the second grade, but for some reason we do not insist upon adequate and quality day care and early childhood education for all.
If we expect to see improvements in the state's public schools, and if we want to improve U.S. competitiveness abroad, then we need to demand equal access to early childhood education for all of our kids. Budget cuts to early childhood education and childcare may have been penny-wise, but they were very, very pound-foolish.
Abigail Ramirez, Minneapolis, is a case manager with Aronson & Associates, P.A.