Catherine Toth Fox: Let's Invest In Hawaii's Child Care Sector Before It's Too Late - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Get a bunch of toddler moms together and inevitably the conversation turns to child care.

Who watches your kids? What preschools are you going to apply to? When is it acceptable to start drinking wine on a Tuesday?

And then we start talking — OK, complaining — about the cost.

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Child care for infants and toddlers is expensive, especially if you’re picky about it. For those of us who don’t have able-bodied or willing grandparents to help out — and have to return to work because we need the dual income — finding affordable, convenient child care is akin to winning the lottery.

When you find that magical fairy babysitter or a coveted slot in a hard-to-get-into preschool (bonus if it has a potty-training program), you crack open the Champagne you stashed for special occasions and toast your good fortune.

And it’s so rare to find that perfect child care situation, you almost feel guilty about it.

I went back to work four months after giving birth to my son, and I was late to the child care search. By the time I needed full-time care, I couldn’t get into any infant program in town. One provider even told me I should have called when I was pregnant. I started to panic.

Luckily, a friend of mine knew a woman who was starting an at-home daycare in Aina Haina — a full 10 miles in the opposite direction of Downtown Honolulu. This was her first foray into running a daycare, and sending my son there would require spending nearly two extra hours (depending on traffic) commuting. And it wasn’t cheap; back then we paid more than $1,000 a month.

It was hands-down the best decision we ever made — and totally worth the cost.

In fact, when you break it down, our sitter, the kindest and most loving mother of two sons, was severely underpaid, especially for the work she was doing. (She even cooked for the kids.)

The median wage for local child care workers (excluding preschool teachers) is only $13.79 an hour, according to data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2021. That comes out to $28,683 a year — not enough for a single person to survive in Hawaii. According to ZipRecruiter, that’s less than the average salary for a Costco employee ($31,544) or a dog walker in Honolulu ($30,046). Preschool teachers don’t make much more.

And yet, these are the people — educated and trained — to whom we entrust our kids, who have the tough and tiring job of nurturing, entertaining, feeding, diapering, cleaning, napping and consoling — all the frustrating, exhausting, thankless parts of parenthood — and many barely earn minimum wage.

“Clearly, child care workers should be valued a lot higher,” says Keopu Reelitz, director of Early Learning and Health Policy at the Hawaii Children’s Action Network and mother of three kids under the age of 7.

“It’s a broken system. It’s easy for us, as parents, to say (child care) is expensive, to react to the sticker shock because the sticker shock is real,” she said. “The industry was created on the backs of women, largely women of color, who were barely paid. We created a market based on that system and we never fixed the wages. We just expected them to continue doing that work. It’s ‘mother’s work.’ And families are expected to bear this cost.”

playing room of a school for kids without people
We trust child care workers with our kids, and they have the tough and tiring job of nurturing, entertaining and feeding them. Yet many barely earn minimum wage. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The whole child care situation in Hawaii is complicated and complex. First, child care is expensive, and many parents struggle financially to pay the expense or simply can’t afford it. The cost of living in Hawaii is among the highest in the nation and salaries are not, so parents opt to keep their kids at home or in daycare instead of paying for preschool. About half of the state’s kindergarteners have no preschool experience — that coincides with national data from the National Institute for Early Childhood Research — putting them at a disadvantage developmentally and socially. It’s a Catch-22.

But here’s where it gets interesting: We should actually be paying more for child care, something like $20,300 a year for infant care that meets base-quality licensing standards, according to the Center for American Progress. The true cost of infant care that meets high-quality standards is $25,700. Child care workers could then earn more appropriate salaries and retention rates would likely improve. From 2018 to 2020, Hawaii lost about 20% of its child care workforce, according to Reelitz.

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But raising the cost of child care without addressing Hawaii’s cost-of-living challenges and low wages would only create a wider chasm between those who can afford it and those who cannot.

A friend of mine, a 36-year-old public school teacher and mother of a kindergartener, struggled to find infant child care when she had to return to work five months after giving birth. Like me, she didn’t have babysitting help from grandparents, and she wasn’t going to quit her full-time job to be an at-home mom.

She knew she would have to pay more for licensed child care somewhere in urban Honolulu, where she lives and works. One daycare charged $1,800 a month for infant care — today, tuition there is $2,245 a month — and she and her husband could only afford it because her mom helped with the cost.

Preschool tuition was cheaper — $1,400 a month — but the extra expense has affected their lives. They don’t travel much anymore, share a single car and find creative ways to save money.

“It’s like a mortgage payment,” she says. “But I wasn’t shocked.”

So what’s the solution?

Reelitz argues that the state needs to dedicate funds to boost wages for child care workers, provide tuition stipends and build the workforce — basically, invest in this sector, one with the all-important function of supporting Hawaii’s future. Though the Legislature shot down a pilot program this year to increase child care wages and pay stipends to college students interested in early education, it did allocate $200 million for the construction, expansion or renovation of pre-kindergarten facilities across the state.

But more needs to be done — and it’s hard to keep the attention of parents who are struggling to just get the laundry done. And once their kids are in elementary school, they don’t care as much about the challenges they faced securing child care. That task is done, checked off the list, and we’re onto the next crisis.

Parents, we need to help the ones coming up behind us, to remember how it felt to scramble for child care, to write those monthly checks, to see daycares close and teachers leave because they can’t afford to stay in a job they love but doesn’t pay the bills. We can’t forget and decide it’s not our problem anymore. This will be our kids’ problem — unless you’re willing to babysit your grandkids.


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

If you can't afford to raise a child in a manner you desire, don't have one. There are various ways to prevent having a child. Hopefully future parents will assess their circumstances and whether they can afford a child based on their financial conditions before actually having the child.Much of the inbred poverty of Hawaii residents comes from the desire to stay in Hawaii no matter the cost. This may not be in their (or their children's) best interest. Hawaii is expensive and the 'Price of Paradise tax' affects the lower classes the hardest.If the people of Hawaii want to improve their offspring's odds of success vs their rate they need to look for better job paying (and lower costs) that other areas provide.

rogersmith · 1 month ago

Too late. Everybody’s moving already.

RedStateHawaii · 1 month ago

Good article, but sadly the advocates for childcare are primarily limited to couples with small children. Once their kids are old enough for regular K-12 school, the personal stake in a better childcare system diminishes and it becomes a nice-to-have service, instead of a must-have service.A lot of people would probably vote for more and better childcare if it was a ballot measure and it wouldn't raise their taxes. I suspect not enough people feel a real passion for the greater good that a good childcare system can deliver.

CaptainMandrake · 1 month ago

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