Tamara Hudson’s workday routine typically starts before 4 a.m., when the bleary-eyed single mother rouses her 2-year-old son in their Redwood City home, wraps him in a blanket and places him in her Honda for the first of her 40-mile round trips to the closest daycare provider she can afford.

After dropping him off in Fremont, Hudson heads back to Redwood City for her 6 a.m. shift assembling medical parts. In the afternoon, she drives back to Fremont to pick up him and by the time she gets home — 6 p.m. if she’s lucky with Bay Area traffic  — she’s depleted.

Like thousands of other working parents in California, Hudson is on a waiting list for state-subsidized daycare. But as her wait stretches into its second year, she sees little change in her future. Unlike other waiting lists for social programs like Section 8, which can operate on a first-come, first-served basis, the waiting list for a daycare subsidy serves the lowest-income, neediest families first, so parents who earn even minimal salaries are unlikely to move up.

“You could sit on the waiting list for 5, 10, 15 years. If you’re making $2,000 a month you might stay on there forever,” says Eric Peterson, the director of client services and public policy at the child care referral agency Bananas, which contracts with the state to administer child care subsidies in Alameda County. “We are seeing working families 100 percent stuck.”

Some parents have become so discouraged that they’ve taken to calling the long paper line for the for a daycare subsidy the “no hope list.” While they wait, they often devise elaborate workarounds. Some spend hours on the road ferrying their kids to friends and family. A few quit their jobs because the cost of non-subsidized care is too high.  Others resort to tenuous arrangements in non-licensed facilities with unreliable caregivers.

“This has devastated people’s lives,” says Clarissa Doutherd, executive director of Parent Voices Oakland, part of a statewide group that advocates for affordable child care. “I have spoken to parents who lost their job waiting for [subsidized] child care, who lost their housing because they lost their jobs, who are experiencing food insecurity because they became economically unstable due to a lack of child care.”

In California, roughly 2 million children are eligible for subsidized child care, which is available as vouchers or open slots at daycare centers. To be eligible for a subsidy, a family of four must have an income below $6,719 per month, or $80,623 annually. But anyone making that much, experts says, is likely to stay on the list forever.

Just one out of every nine eligible children –about 228,100–are actually enrolled in full-time subsidized care programs, according to  the California Budget & Policy Center. That’s because there isn’t enough state and federal funding to serve everyone,  says Kristin Schumacher, a senior policy analyst at the center.

Tamara Hudson buckles in her son Isaac Ramirez, 2. Hudson commutes from Redwood City to Fremont for child care and then goes back to Redwood City to work. Photo by Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

It’s hard to know how many families remain on the waiting list for subsidized child care. The state Department of Education used to collect data on the number of children on the waiting list, but funding for that program was cut in 2011. Jennifer Greppi, the statewide lead chapter organizer for Parent Voices, estimates there are 500,000 families on the list across California. And in Alameda County alone, there are nearly 7,000 children waiting for subsidized child care, according to the Alameda County Early Care and Education Program.

Faced with lengthy wait times, parents can turn to private daycare centers, but many find market rates out of reach. In 2018, the annual median cost for infant care was more than $21,000 in the nine-county Bay Area, according to Oakland’s Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

Veronica Duarte and her husband, parents of three who live in Novato, applied for a subsidy. They spent five years waiting.

During that time, Duarte, who works at a Latin American grocery store, and her husband, who is a cook, cobbled together an ad-hoc daycare system of neighbors and friends. But Duarte often worried and wished she could have left her kids with a licensed provider.

Duarte finally got a subsidy more than a year ago, but the years of waiting, worrying and shuffling around took a toll. “The waiting list is like a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” she says.

For single parents like Hudson, the challenges can be huge. Child Care Aware of America estimates that center-based infant care in California can take up 56% of a single parent’s income.

We work, we pay taxes, we pay rent, but the money doesn’t go far enough to pay for child care with a professional,” says Hudson. “For working families, this is one of the challenges we face: do we pay for day care or do we pay rent?”

Deysi Ku Caamal, 23, of Novato, was paying between $600 and $700 per month for child care for her daughter, Jaycee Ku Guillen. When she learned she finally qualified for a subsidy after 18 months of waiting, she burst into tears. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

Deysi Ku Caamal, a single mother in Novato who works at a grocery store, had to make those kinds of choices while she waited for a subsidy. She paid a caregiver between $600 and $700 each month. That put a strain on her ability to buy basics like clothing and food. When Ku Caamal learned she finally qualified a subsidy for her daughter after 18 months of waiting, she burst into tears.

“At first I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I went home crying. It made a big difference for me financially. Sometimes I would have to work overtime to earn enough money to pay my bills and pay day care every month. Now I can actually get what she wants, food she likes. It changed a lot.”

Greppi of Parent Voices, who organizes families across California, says next year, her organization plans to lobby for a huge boost in the state budget for subsidized child care vouchers.

That would provide the kind of increased access Hudson fantasizes about on her drive home. As her son drifts to sleep, she ticks off the ways her life would change if she got a subsidy. It could help her find a trained, licensed provider. She could find someone closer to home and work. She could use the extra time to make healthier meals, which often feels like an uphill battle after a 14-hour day, and spend quality time with her toddler and two teen-agers.

“I hope they call me,” she says.

Erica Hellerstein is a journalist at the Mercury News. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Erica Hellerstein is an award-winning journalist and a reporter for The Mercury News and The California Divide project covering poverty and inequality in the Bay Area. She has covered human rights issues...