By CBSLA Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Childcare costs now rank as the number one expense for families in Southern California, and experts say the pandemic has turned an already broken system into a full-blown crisis.

According to a new study by the Insight Center, childcare costs in Los Angeles County have risen 50% in the last six years, and families from all over the Southland say they have not been able to find affordable and available childcare. (CBSLA)

According to a new study by the Insight Center, childcare costs in Los Angeles County have risen 50% in the last six years, and families from all over the Southland say they have not been able to find affordable and available childcare.

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“I contacted every childcare from Fontana, Rialto, Rancho, Chino, Upland, nothing,” Stefanee Becklund, a single mom, said. “Everything was between a 10- to 20-person waitlist.”

Parents making minimum wage are struggling to keep the lights on and mothers are left in limbo.

Childcare industry experts say there was trouble before the pandemic, and it has only gotten worse.

“The gaps are huge,” Christina Alvarado, executive director of the Childcare Alliance of Los Angeles, said. “They’re no longer gaps, I’m saying they’re valleys, they’re gorges. We have a situation where the childcare system is in crisis.”

Back in May, CBS Los Angeles’ Kristine Lazar reported that from March 2020 to May 2021, more than 8,500 childcare sites in California have shut down. More than 3,000 of them have closed permanently, taking with them thousands of spots for people who need care.

Stefanee Becklund is a single mom with a 6-year-old son. She works long hours as a retail manager and has tried since her son got out of school to find summer care, but has so far been unsuccessful.

She has resorted to paying a babysitter $500 per week to watch him, maxing out her credit cards and even taking out a loan to pay her.

“It’s to the point where I start to think, ‘Do I need to go on unemployment and stop working, because I can’t afford to pay all the stuff,'” she said. “Because, you know, I guarantee you that’s probably what a lot of single parents or parents who are not making a large income are doing right now.”

President Joe Biden has earmarked $25 billion to help stabilize the childcare industry, of which more than $2 billion will go to California.

“I think that the whole voucher system needs to be looked at and increased,” Alvarado said when asked about what was needed to address the growing crisis.

Currently, childcare providers that get money from the state are receiving vouchers at the 2016 market rate, and the median wage for childcare workers in California is just $13.43 per hour.

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“So, when you think about the minimum wage and trying to raise it to $15, providers are way behind,” Alvarado said. “So what we see is that the childcare providers are living in poverty themselves.”

The low wages have caused many to find jobs outside of the industry.

“A lot of staff have chosen not to come back,” Keesha Woods, the executive director of Los Angeles County’s Head Start Program, said. “We already had a teacher shortage prior to the pandemic, and now we have even more of a teacher shortage. That’s going to keep us from opening classrooms.”

And while everybody agrees that there is a childcare shortage, Woods says parents often don’t realize they qualify for aid. She says the county program serves about 10,000 children and is only 80% enrolled.

“We are moving toward full operation of our centers, and we have centers and slots available in every board of supervisors area,” she said.

And while the program is income based, she says it also serves unhoused families, which includes families in transition, like those who have temporarily moved in with relatives.

“So before you say you’re not eligible, call us,” Wood said.

Becklund said she did reach out to referral groups in her county, but still came up empty handed.

“It’s ‘I make too much,’ but it’s kind of hard to say I make too much when I’m literally living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

California is considering raising the voucher levels for childcare providers, which would help keep centers opened and help providers pay more competitive wages. But experts say what the industry really needs, in addition to state and federal funding, is better support for working families such as flexible schedules, the ability to work remotely and on-site childcare.

Those searching for childcare options in the Los Angeles County area can find more information about childcare options on the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles website. More information about Head Start programs can be found online or by calling 1-877-773-5543.

For those searching for options in the Inland Empire, the Pomona Unified School District provides resources on its website. People can also call 909-397-4740 for more information. The Child Care Resource Center also has information on its site about childcare options and can be reached by calling 866-674-5437.

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Additional resources in the State of California can be found on the California Department of Social Services website, on the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network website or by calling CalWORKS Child Care at 800-543-7793.