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Sweatpants & Parenting | When Childcare Becomes a Barrier to Education

By Jerusha Gray

In 2010, I became a displaced housewife and single mom. My three-year-old and I camped out on a gifted set of bunk beds in my mom’s converted garage. It was humble. I was grateful to have a soft place to land. There is no shame in starting over. I knew that I didn’t want to stay in proverbial triage mode for long. I started working night shifts at a local grocery store bakery and enrolled in a local community college full-time.

The hours were grueling. My body and spirit were beat to shit. I kept pushing onward. I tried to enroll my son at the on-campus childcare center to keep him close to me during the day. I was told there was a nine month waiting list and to get in line. I knew that my education was the key to my tiny family’s fledgling success. How was I going to get through class on zero sleep and with a three year old in tow?

Thankfully my mom agreed to transport my son to and from an off-site daycare center while I attended class. My foray into college would have been short lived at best without this support. I was able to attend for a nearly a year before I had to take a break due to finances. Fast forward six years. I am still battling out the good fight for a bachelor’s degree one semester at a time. I am certainly not alone.

“Students with children are especially unlikely to complete programs of higher education within 6 years of enrollment, with only 33 percent attaining a degree or certificate in that time. An IWPR survey of nearly 550 women enrolled in Mississippi community colleges finds that family care demands are a major reason women decide to take a break from school, with 30 percent of survey respondents indicating that their college career was interrupted due to family care needs.” (Institute of Women’s Policy Research Annual Study).

My story is one of millions like it. The Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released it’s annual survey in July 2016. It shows that 4.8  million students with dependents were enrolled in secondary education in 2015. 3.4 million students included in that group are mothers. Many of those mothers are sole breadwinners for their families.  A large percentage of students with dependents were enrolled in community colleges like me.  The IWPR notes that access to childcare is one of the prime indicators of sustained enrollment and student success. Yet, according to the latest survey, it is at a twelve year low.

On-campus child care peaked between 2003 and 2005 with availability of 55% percent at four-year institutions  and 53% at community colleges. It has been a steady decline ever since. The 2014 survey shows 50% availability at an abysmal 45% at community colleges. 2015 shows a downward slide of an additional 1% ending up with 49% at four-year institutions and 44% of community colleges.

The weight of financial responsibility, the time sacrificed to academic pursuit,  and the desire to breach the divide between failing resources and the promise of more for my children was crushing.   “Student parents, and especially those who are single, face significant time demands—20 percent of parents (27 percent of women; 12 percent of men) devote more than 30 hours per week to dependent care. Single student mothers attending community college spend large amounts of time caring for children, and are twice as likely as student fathers to spend at least 30 hours per week caring for children (more than 60 percent of student mothers spend 30 hours or more caring for dependents each week). These parents also often experience significant financial need, with 88 percent of student parents living at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. Child care can be prohibitively expensive for many families, especially those with low-incomes. Low income families with children under 15 spend, on average, 40 percent of their average monthly income on child care, whereas their higher-income counterparts spend between 7 and 13 percent on child care.”

This is the icing on a shit-cake that is the ever-burgeoning cost of living increases that are crushing our most vulnerable populations. According to www.statusofwomen.org the annual average cost of childcare in a center in my home state of Washington is over $12,000. This accounts for over 29% of a white woman’s median income here.

A mother’s ability to increase financial solvency for herself and the lives that depend on her should not be hindered by decreased access to quality child care, on-campus or off. The continued cuts on resources available to women is absolutely unacceptable. Myopic policy makers’ decisions to cut funding on programs that enable parents to pursue education is pure and utter bullshit.

I am still plugging away on my degree.  I am grateful for the support I have from my partner and from my extended family. My education would not be possible without a network of support behind me. It is still an often unforgiving and brutal undertaking. For women without this support, a secondary education and an exit out of the poverty cycle remains a dream unrealized.

For more information regarding the statistics of women in your own state, please check out www.statusofwomen.org.

This piece was previously published on The Radical Notion, here.

Jerusha Gray

Jerusha Gray is insatiably curious. This curiosity, coupled with a brain that never shuts up, drives her to paint and draw, read prodigiously, make music, write, and sing in grocery stores.

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