It all sounds fine, fortunate even -- but a closer look at the picture tells a different story.
Since November, before baby Kelsey was born, the couple scoured the New Orleans area for reliable child care in anticipation of Berry returning to work. They got on a couple of waiting lists for child-care centers, but the lists are long and the openings are few. "In most places, I haven't even been put on the waiting list because they're so overbooked," Sneed says. "At the same time, I need somewhere I feel comfortable. I don't want to be in a situation where beggars can't be choosers."
Many parents had a hard time finding good, affordable child care in metro New Orleans even before Katrina. Figures from the state Department of Social Services show the New Orleans area had about 285 licensed child-care centers open before the storm. Today, just 43 are open, meaning an 85 percent decrease in licensed providers. All 16 child-care centers in St. Bernard Parish were wiped out.
"I live in River Ridge and I work in the CBD, and I've looked all over," Sneed says. "I've looked in New Orleans East, the West Bank, everywhere, to find child care. And even if someone has openings, once we tell them she's 2 months old it's, 'Oh, we don't take infants.' My wife is supposed to start work on the 10th, and we really are searching." The couple looked into hiring a nanny, but realized the cost of such private care would consume most of Berry's income. "It's great, it's convenient," Sneed says of in-home babysitting, "but I can't afford it."
This story is not unusual in hurricane-damaged areas of Louisiana. Child-welfare advocates are urging the public and private sectors to support the child-care industry, saying it's a pressing need for the economy as a whole. Parents who can't find someone to watch their kids can't accept available jobs; for many families, child care is the sole factor that helps them decide whether to return.
"After the need for housing, child care is the next most important thing on the agenda," says Judy Watts, executive director of the nonprofit Agenda for Children. "Jobs are available, but employers can't get quality people. It's a real problem. We've had a number of calls from parents who want to come back -- who either have jobs waiting for them, or who want to find work -- but they don't have child care."
The need to improve child-care services, while more drastic than ever, is not new.
A year ago, the state Department of Social Services commissioned a somewhat unusual study for a social-welfare agency -- an economic strategy report for Louisiana. Drawing from heavy hitters including Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and Boston College's Carroll School of Management, study authors built a strong case for Louisiana to boost the state's economy through a major investment in child care.
Asking legislators to direct resources to social services like this has been a tough sell in Louisiana, even in better times. Today, supporters are pressing their case that until working parents in hurricane-affected areas can get good, affordable child care, the economy as a whole will stall and stagnate. Their bottom line is that any rebuilding plan for Louisiana, and the New Orleans area in particular, must make child care a priority.
"We need the state to see the child-care industry as a sector, like the entertainment industry or the oil and gas industry. We need some of those same initiatives (that they receive)," says Todd Battiste, vice president of Children and Families at United Way for Greater New Orleans. He recalls last year, before the storm, when United Way and other advocacy groups brought the economic impact report to Louisiana legislators and showed them the results. "Legislators see dollars, and to lay it out in that fashion helped," Battiste says.
The report, called "Investing in the Child Care Industry: An Economic Strategy for Louisiana," presents some eye-opening facts. The child-care sector in Louisiana, pre-Katrina, was formidable. Conservative estimates show there were about 12,700 child-care businesses employing 22,600 workers, which generated about $658 million in gross receipts annually. These figures don't account for the indirect impact on the greater economy; most notably, the 136,000 working parents who depended on licensed child-care providers in order to maintain their jobs.
The study went on to show that "for every dollar that is spent in the child care sector, $1.72 is returned into the economy. Similarly, for each new child care job that is created, 1.27 jobs are created in the larger economy." It emphasized the relationship between the money Louisiana spends on child care and the federal dollars received as a result. "The state contributes $40 million dollars into child care which helps leverage $251.7 million federal dollars into the child-care system," the report says. "In turn, this $251.7 million has a total impact of $433 million in the Louisiana economy."
Although the child-care sector supports virtually every other type of industry in the state, the brunt of this support falls disproportionately on the working parents who use the system and on the underpaid child-care providers who work in it. "Everyone, even those who don't use child care," Watts says, "has to see it as a priority."
Some major obstacles remain. One is that the child-care sector has lost facilities and workers in massive numbers, so the industry itself has a hard time getting back on its feet. Another is that many parents, even those working for minimum wage, earn "too much" to qualify for child-care assistance, and their options are limited.
Solutions are being discussed, though progress generally ends there. Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, in its final redevelopment reports, labeled child care as a component of a "healthy population" but didn't elaborate much more than that. The commission's Health and Social Services report mentioned a central helpline to refer parents to child-care sources, but didn't propose broader solutions to address the lack of licensed child-care providers, or struggling families who are ineligible for child-care assistance.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration has been more proactive. In February, it allocated $14.4 million in block grants to implement a Quality Rating System for child-care centers. Such a system would raise safety standards and developmental curriculum in licensed centers. Battiste, of United Way, calls the allocation "a good start" and praises the Blanco administration for it, but goes on to say that much more is needed. "It is a challenge now to open a child-care center -- getting qualified staff is always a problem, and it's even more of a problem now."
The state report showed that the child-care sector also serves as a crucial support for public schools -- that children who enter schools after participating in a quality child-care program (such as the federal government's Head Start) arrive much better prepared academically and socially than those coming from less-than-comprehensive child-care situations. Quality programs include curriculums that address young children's cognitive and physical development, physical and mental-health needs, with well-trained and experienced staff members who routinely participate in continuing education for their positions. "Given the success of child-care programs in improving school performance of children from disadvantaged families," the study said, "improving child care may play an important role in the difficult, but crucial, task of improving Louisiana's public schools."
Watts, of Agenda for Children, says the governor's Quality Rating System aims to do just that. "We are using this as an opportunity to improve the overall quality of care," she says. "The pre-K programs in schools are extremely popular; the state is really proud of them and continues to expand them. But we like to point out the need to deliver a healthy, well-functioning 3-year-old to those programs, which is where the Quality Rating System for child care comes in."
Few teachers in child-care centers receive health insurance. In many cases, as they get more advanced training and education, they accept teaching jobs in schools where such benefits are available. "Health care is something child-care providers need," Battiste says. "That is something definitely that the state should look at -- a universal health plan for child-care providers." That way, he says, more of these workers would stay in the field as they advance their teaching skills.
Other solutions would include public and private assistance to centers to rebuild their facilities, hire teachers and help them get certified. "The first thing we need to do, and we're working on this," says Watts, "is to identify centers and providers that could get back up and running with help -- then to match them with resources that can make it possible." These resources include private donations and government grants for repair and equipment. "The state is allowing centers and providers in storm-impacted areas to apply twice in the fiscal year, so we're encouraging those who need the assistance to apply quickly."
Watts points out that the money and aid is out there, but many child-care centers may not know it. Agenda for Children and United Way are currently helping to match child-care providers with the help they need to build or rebuild. Gary Ostroske, president of United Way of Greater New Orleans, credits his national network with responding financially to the need for child care. "We have been able to raise more than $100,000 so far to go directly to child-care services in New Orleans."
Several major employers including Avondale Ship Yard, Entergy Corp. and Harrah's New Orleans Casino have contacted the United Way for help in providing child-care services for their workers. In Harrah's efforts to bring back more than 1000 employees, the lack of child care became a big issue. In January, Carla Major, vice president of Human Resources at Harrah's sent an urgent email to United Way: "Help!!! I need a list of licensed day care centers that are open in the city ASAP."
Some parents have taken matters into their own hands. The popular Gris Gris House day-care center closed its Uptown location after the storm damaged the building and the owner was forced to relocate. Parents who used Gris Gris House were already tight-knit before the storm, making it easier for them to work together to create a solution. "We decided we wanted to start it as a nonprofit," says Denise Warren Ross, whose 22-month-old son Jamie will be in attendance.
So far, organizers of the new Abeona House child-care center have "secured a property, gotten our 501c3 (nonprofit) status filled, found a director, and have been hiring teachers and addressing an ongoing list of things that need to be done on the property." Ross and her husband, along with other parents, spend their Saturdays at the center's new Oak Street location, working to rebuild. "Some of the parents on the Saturday work days are on the waiting list," she says. "Their kids aren't enrolled yet, but they've heard good things about the place. ...
"One cool thing is that we wanted to make sure our teachers were paid a livable wage," Ross says. "We had a real commitment to that and to making sure they had health-care coverage. The owner of Gris Gris House struggled with that -- how do you keep rates low and treat your staff like professionals, and give them the wages they deserve and the support they need? So the nonprofit model makes sense -- you have grant funding coming in. The other thing is that we have a sliding scale ... we wanted to make sure everybody could afford to bring their kids there."
Another solution, proposed by child-advocacy groups, involves pressing the government to increase funding to Head Start and Early Head Start in order to expand its eligibility requirements. As it stands, the federal programs are open almost exclusively to families who fall below federal poverty standards, and are mostly targeted toward older children.
"These entrance requirements do not make sense in Katrina's aftermath, when the damage suffered by so many young children is not confined to a specific income level, and when babies, toddlers, and preschoolers all need a response fast," says a recent report by the national noprofit The Urban Institute. "Recognizing this, the Head Start Bureau has already allowed programs to enroll Katrina evacuees at any income level ... But more resources are needed to open the program's doors to all evacuee children who need help and to reach younger children, from birth to age 3." The report urges "state, local and private-sector contributions" to help expand such programs.
All this points to several tangible solutions proposed, but little headway. For some parents, the need for child care can't wait on slow-moving action.
Irianna Robert, who has lived in a motel on Airline Highway for two months, is one of them. Child care is the factor that will determine when she can accept a job and move into a home of her own. She has put her name on several waiting lists, but has no family in the area and few prospects for someone reliable to watch 9-month-old Sherman. She just had a promising interview at a bank, but she can't let herself be enthusiastic about the job when she's not sure she could even accept it. "The job is no problem," she says. "Finding someone to watch him? That's the problem."