Childcare Access Is the Difference Between Economic Opportunity and Homelessness

Without affordable childcare, my family slid into homelessness. We could have avoided this if our country prioritized helping families.

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A pre-kindergarten class in Jamesburg, N.J. Today, parents pay unaffordable prices for early education while early educators—the majority of whom are women—are paid poverty-level wages. (OIT / Governor Phil Murphy’s Office via Flickr)

As Congress resumes the discussion of President Biden’s economic plan, one component that directly impacts America’s economic future is the childcare crisis. A recent study reveals the grim reality the average family faces: Childcare eats up 25 percent of their income, and many mothers were forced to leave the workforce due to a lack of affordable childcare. I know this reality well because, without affordable childcare, my family slid into homelessness.

My family moved into a homeless shelter five months ago. This is not the life I envisioned for us. I struggled with homelessness in my childhood and fought hard to give my children a better life. But breaking the cycle of poverty is incredibly difficult; it’s almost impossible for a single parent without access to childcare.

Government-funded childcare programs have been a lifeline for me as a mother. My oldest child could access preschool at no cost because of Washington D.C.’s universal preschool program. With his care covered, I could work a great job and build our lives.

But the cost of living in D.C. became unaffordable, and I moved back to my hometown of Alexandria in 2019. That meant we lost access to the city’s universal pre-K program. With two children under 5, I struggled to juggle work and childcare. 

Breaking the cycle of poverty is incredibly difficult; it’s almost impossible for a single parent without access to childcare. I felt trapped in a cycle of needing work to afford childcare, but needing childcare to find work.

Most parents, even two-income households, struggle to afford childcare and preschool costs. For a single working parent, it’s already difficult to afford childcare—but it’s impossible to afford aftercare on top of that. Upwards of $1200 per week on childcare for two children was unmanageable. When I couldn’t afford the full days of childcare, I couldn’t work the 40-hour work weeks most jobs require. 

If we were going to make it, I would need to be my own boss and set my own hours. So, I began studying for my realtor license and started a cleaning business. Then came the pandemic, and the little childcare I had, vanished, along with my cleaning jobs and sole source of income.

Thus began the downward spiral of my family’s financial security. I needed to find steady work, but I needed childcare first. I missed eight job interviews and countless cleaning jobs because I didn’t have childcare.

Out of options, I applied for a childcare voucher to subsidize daycare so I could secure stable employment. Instead of help, I was met with a frustrating process wherein I needed the voucher to get a job, but needed a job to qualify for the voucher. For months, I applied for jobs, went to interviews, and was left heartbroken when they could not hire a single parent without guaranteed childcare.

At my breaking point, I called my childcare caseworker in tears. I felt trapped in a cycle of needing work to afford childcare, but needing childcare to find work. Ultimately, my caseworker helped me secure the voucher which reduced my childcare costs substantially. After another lengthy process, I enrolled my youngest two children in Head Start preschool.

But the damage to my finances had snowballed; we were hanging by a thread. That thread was cut when we had to move out of our condo due to black mold. Without savings, we didn’t have time to find affordable housing—which was already scarce. I used our final child tax credit payment to put our belongings in storage before moving into the homeless shelter.

If we were going to make it, I would need to be my own boss and set my own hours. So, I began studying for my realtor license and started a cleaning business. Then came the pandemic, and the little childcare I had, vanished, along with my cleaning jobs and sole source of income.

I can’t help but think we could have avoided this if our country prioritized helping families. Now, Congress has the opportunity to do just that. President Biden’s economic plan calls for legislation that would lower costs for millions of families. The proposal would cap childcare costs at seven percent of a family’s income and invest in universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. Not only would this plan help single parents participate in the workforce, but it would also set our children up for success later on in life.

Being homeless is stressful on kids. I know they are aware of the situation we are in. But school is their escape. They are eager to learn every day and bring me pictures of rainbows and hearts after school. They are developing social skills and learning more than I could ever imagine in our present situation.

I’m not sure what will happen in the future, but I know that access to childcare will play a huge role in it. For now, we have childcare and preschool. But parents shouldn’t have to reach rock bottom to give their children early childhood education. For the millions of parents still struggling, Congress must pass Biden’s plan.

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About

Javona Brownlee lives in Alexandria, Va., with her three children.