Let's Pull Families Back From the Edge - Women's Foundation California

Judy Patrick

In these challenging economic times, with California's 12 percent unemployment rate, most of us assume that having a job and getting a raise is a good thing. But I recently learned about Cheryl, who when offered a raise, didn't celebrate, but had a difficult decision to make.

Cheryl, a single mother who works full time, aspires to give her children opportunities that she never dreamed of for herself. Because she's a hard worker, her employer wanted to recognize her contribution with a pay increase. But here's the rub. If Cheryl earned more money, she would no longer be eligible for early education subsidies and without those subsidies she would not be able to afford adequate afterschool childcare. Yet refusing the raise would mean limiting her opportunities in the workplace.

Cheryl is a victim of what has been called the Cliff Effect. Families begin to lose eligibility for early education subsidies as their salaries increase. While that would seem to make sense, the problem is they usually lose these benefits before they can sufficiently cover their basic needs. And because of California's annual budget cuts, the salary threshold to qualify for these early education subsidies continues to drop — without warning. We are leaving families standing on the edge of a cliff unable to gain the solid footing they once had.

And she is not alone. Many single mothers find themselves faced with deciding whether or not a raise will actually harm their ability to provide for their families. In today's economy, where budget cuts seem to be an easy fix, we are constantly placing families' well-being on the edge of a very steep cliff with no sign of a safety net.

I'm not arguing that budget cuts won't allow us to realize immediate cost savings. We will. But what worries me is how much we lose out in the long term. These budget cuts actually end up costing states more — especially when it comes to cuts to early childhood education.

Economists are now joining child development professionals in calling for increased attention to early care and education as a way to promote a healthy and productive economy and workforce. James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics and University of Chicago professor, argues that “investing in disadvantaged young children reduces the inequality associated with the accident of birth and at the same time raises the productivity of society at large.” A win-win.

Society benefits when children are learning and parents are earning. A recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study found that in California alone, the $5.6 billion early childcare and education industry supports a whopping $11.1 billion in economic output and nearly 200,000 jobs. With today's economic hardships, that is music to our ears. By reducing cuts to early childhood education, we could boost our lagging economy and help families step back from the edge.

With California already $1.26 billion short in revenue for the current fiscal year, legislators will be faced with difficult choices about what items to cut. The time has come for legislators to stop looking to children when they begin to slash budgets and cut programs. It is morally and fiscally irresponsible. Join me in protecting women and families by asking our legislators to raise the ceiling on the amount of money women can make before early education subsidies are eliminated.

When a working mother can have peace of mind knowing that her child is being taken care of — whether it's through childcare or preschool programs that enhance her young child's development — they become more productive employees and members of society.

And Cheryl? She accepted the raise, and peace of mind is now a luxury she can't afford.

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