In Harlem, frustrated parents hope new funding can fix their child care desert


July 27, 2022

By James O’Donnell

In Harlem, where there are often 10 children for each available child care slot, parents often sing a similar tune as they recount their efforts to chase those spots.

Nikki Wiles works as a technical program manager and went through four nannies in one year for her 4-year-old son with special needs, who would miss out on essential therapy during the gaps. Mitchell Goodson, a customer service representative for Spectrum, finally found a stable caregiver for her 6-year-old daughter with autism, but she is 15 minutes away in the Bronx. Nicole Weiss, a school’s chief operating officer who had three sitters leave after less than three months, has seen her costs rise to $5,000 per month for both of her children.

Experts say that unpredictable hours, low pay, health risks heightened by the pandemic, and a general lack of benefits such as health care and paid time off mean the industry is increasingly short-staffed. Parents in child care deserts such as Harlem are most likely to feel the squeeze, and they must always be ready for a sudden gap in child care.

Goodson said she feels blessed to have found her latest provider, who has the skill set to thoughtfully care for her daughter. But overall, she said, it shouldn’t have to be this hard.

These are the parents that Gov. Kathy Hochul intends to reach with the latest batch of federal funds dedicated to the child care crisis. On Tuesday, the governor announced more than $68 million in new funding to child care providers in the state’s child care deserts. More than $16 million will go to 70 new providers in New York City for staffing and personnel costs, an average of about $238,000 per provider.

Jeannine Smith, deputy director of communications for the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, said the office won’t release names of which providers were awarded grants until the licenses are completed.

More than 60% of the state is considered a child care desert, defined as an area with at least three children under the age of 5 for each available spot. State leaders have prioritized filling this gap, long known to be a hindrance to people returning to work. On July 5 Hochul opened $343 million in federal funding for child care businesses and nonprofits across the state, and Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan on June 28 to spend $2 billion.

A tipping point 

To Jennifer March, executive director of Citizens Committee for Children of New York, the latest round of grants for new child care facilities is only the first step.

“The grants themselves are positive because the sector itself is in crisis,” she said. “But it’s the beginning of an ambitious agenda to reach universality,” she added, referring to the idea of public-funded, universal child care. March described the industry’s current moment as a tipping point.

Even within child care deserts, New Yorkers face differences between publicly funded programs and private ones. New York policymakers have taken a number of steps to expand access for public programs, such as raising the income eligibility threshold for who can receive subsidies to 300% of the federal poverty level, or $83,250 for a family of four, in the latest state budget. Adams is providing vouchers to parents in 17 low-income neighborhoods.

As child care deserts exist more frequently in lower-income areas, the recipients of these funds are more likely to serve parents using subsidized options. But care shortages plague both public and private options.

The causes are complex, but experts say the workforce of nannies, day care providers, and other caregivers has largely failed to maintain itself, leading to shortages and gaps in care. For parents, the issues can feel bigger than individual grants can solve.

Take the case of Wiles, the mother living in Harlem. Both she and her husband work full time and require child care for their 4-year-old and 8-month-old sons. When she finally found a day care spot, costing $2,400 per month, for her youngest, she encountered a new issue—the day care repeatedly sent her son home for an apparent illness.

When Wiles took him for a checkup, her doctor said her son was perfectly healthy and couldn’t find a reason why the day care would make such a claim. “There was one week where he got sent home three times in a seven-day period,” Wiles said.

For those parents who rely on nannies or sitters, those unexpected gaps and the high turnover among sitters can keep them constantly in search of new providers. Critics of the system have long pointed to low pay and difficult hours for caregivers as root causes for that. The average wage for child care workers in New York is $15.89 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Multiple parents in Harlem said they pay higher than that, often from $27 to $30 per hour. If they find staffers through an agency, they might pay $300 for a search fee, and the agency often takes from 15% to 20% of the caregiver’s salary. Avoiding the agencies just demands more time from parents, who use Facebook, word-of-mouth and websites, among other sources to find caregivers.

“I can’t keep posting in all the same places over and over again,” Wiles said.

In a 2021 report, the NYC Child Care Resource & Referral Consortium outlined key priorities for the city, including widening the availability of nontraditional hour day cares and reaching immigrant communities.

Goodson said she hoped more caregivers and day cares would enter the industry, because the decision of picking care for her child is not one she takes lightly.

“My daughter has special needs, and we need someone to give her a little extra care and attention,” she said. “You can’t trust everyone with your children.”

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