Migrants want to work, but face familiar NYC problem of finding childcare


December 27, 2023

By Karen Yi, Gothamist

Migrants living in homeless shelters are running into a problem many longtime New Yorkers face: figuring out how to pay for childcare.

Childcare costs are another obstacle the new arrivals face as they try to find a job and eventually leave the city’s care. But the problems go beyond paying for someone to watch their young kids. Some migrants said they weren’t even aware of the programs available to help them with childcare.

Mohammad Akmal Yosufzai, 29, arrived from Afghanistan in January with three kids. His eldest is eligible for 3-K. But the program was news to him.

“I don’t know how I can apply,” he told Gothamist.

Education and migrant advocates have said the city isn’t consistently informing migrant families of their options, leaving them to navigate a convoluted system largely on their own. The issue has taken on new urgency as the Adams administration pressures migrant families to leave the shelter system, while also pushing federal officials to issue migrants work permits.

Migrant families with children account for 77% of the new arrivals in the city’s care, according to data through October.

“We have programming, we have the people in spaces to support these newcomer families, but our newcomer families are not given the totality of the resources that are available to them in order to tap into those resources,” said Margot Sigmone, vice president for early childhood programs at the local nonprofit Children’s Aid.

The migrant arrivals are experiencing New York City’s worsening childcare affordability crisis. Nearly 4 in 5 families in the city can’t afford out-of-school care for kids ages 6-12, the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York found in October. And more than 80% of families with children under 5 years old can’t afford care, the report said.

Lack of affordable childcare can derail a family’s opportunity for economic mobility, anti-poverty groups have said. That’s particularly concerning for the 65,000 homeless migrants in shelters.

Migrants say that without anyone to watch over their kids, it’s much harder to remain employed and save enough to afford rent.

“What happens is that families are not able to work. They’re not able to fully care for their children,” said Sarah Oltmans, chief of grant strategy at Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty group. “They become more dependent on things like the emergency food system and other resources.”

City Hall spokesperson Kayla Mamelak said case workers try to help migrants by helping them get in touch with local family members and assisting with school enrollment.

But each migrant faces unique challenges. Saboor Mudaqiq, 32, arrived from Afghanistan in January with his three children and is now living in a shelter. His wife died from complications from malaria as the family escaped Taliban rule and made their way to the United States.

He received a work permit a month ago, but said it’s hard for him to find a job when he has no one to help with his children.

“There are some people, they are couples, the wife can take care of the children and the husband can work, and so they can save money,” Mudaqiq said through a translator. But he said he doesn’t have time to talk to people, learn English and hasn’t found a job after mostly applying online. He worked as an accounting manager in Afghanistan.

Even when Mudaqiq is employed, he said he’ll have to make enough to afford to pay someone to help watch his three children, who are 3, 7 and 8.

Research by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York found a family with one infant and one preschool-aged child earning a median income of $86,000 would spend anywhere from a third to 43% of their income on childcare. Federal government officials recommend that families pay no more than 7% of their annual income on childcare copayments.

Even though state and city officials have increased income eligibility for childcare subsidies, many voucher programs require legal status. The city did launch a program for undocumented children, but new arrivals said they didn’t know it existed.

Last year, the city created a $10 million program to support childcare for about 600 undocumented children. The Promise NYC program received another $16 million this fiscal year and 654 undocumented children will receive child care assistance through next June, according to the Administration for Children’s Services.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

More than 3,300 families with children living in shelter will also have to leave the city’s care starting in January, as part of Adams’ move to limit shelter stays to 60 days to alleviate the beleaguered shelter system. Families with nowhere to go can reapply for shelter. Advocates have warned the plan will uproot children from their schools and make it harder for families to find stability, including childcare close to where they live.

Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York said about half the city’s children live in a household with an immigrant parent and thousands of migrants have arrived in the city in the last year-and-a-half.

“The combination of affordable childcare and affordable housing will define the city’s future here for everyone and migrants in particular,” March said.

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