I had just finished working the day at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii where I served as the Director of External Relations. It was another long day full of meetings, issues to resolve, and fires to put out. I was tired but I was grateful. Grateful to be in a leadership position and doing work that I loved straight out of law school. I was serving the community, helping people, and I thought I was doing good in the world. I was living out what I said I was going to do before I started law school. As much as I loved the work, the pay didn’t go as far as I expected living in one of the most expensive states in the country. The entry level pay for a staff attorney/director position at that time was $37,000 per year and minus family health care expenses and other benefits, I really didn’t take home much. I saved on parking expenses by riding my bike to work and I was lucky I lived close enough to be able to do it. I hopped on my bike and started the ride home.
My wife was home cooking dinner. My daughter was almost 2 at the time. We were splitting the condo we rented with a good friend of mine and his young family. It allowed us both to save some money on the rent. My wife and I had discussed before about her going back to work. She worked as a nurse before and I thought our problems would be solved if she was able to go back to work again. She started the job search and when she did the math, she realized that the cost of putting our daughter in a quality day care full-time was just about how much she would earn if she went back to work. Of course it didn’t make much sense so we decided it would be better off if she stayed home to take care of our daughter and I would figure it out. I had decided I would go back to work at Macy’s in the evenings like I did before when the extra income helped get me through law school.
I ate a quick dinner and kissed my wife and daughter as I made my way out. I hopped on my bike and pedaled the 20 minutes to the Macy’s department store in Waikiki for the evening shift. The store opened late to accommodate tourists who were enjoying their vacations and needed to shop. I worked in the women’s shoe department and I wasn’t the only one who did it as a second job. Our cleaning lady was a Filipina woman in her late 60s and for her this was her third job for the day. She would hop on the bus at nearly 5 in the morning and start her day and end it with the rest of us at midnight.
Working at the Macy’s women’s shoes department had its memorable moments and now, women are surprised when I can compliment them on their shoes and guess the brand correctly. But I could only do it for so long, there were nights when I just felt dizzy from exhaustion. Riding my bike home past midnight to find my wife and daughter already asleep, I would often wonder if it was even worth it for me to stay in public service law. Fortunately enough, the next year our salaries at Legal Aid were finally adjusted to a more livable wage and I could give up my evening job.
My son was born later that year and when my wife was ready to go back to work, we searched for day-care and pre-schools for the children. I was excited to find a pre-school right next to our office only to find out that the cost for the both of them was more than I made in a month. We finally found a place we were comfortable with and after budgeting for the month, we would just have enough for rent, groceries, and other basic living expenses. There were times when we just barely balanced the checkbook. Later, we were ecstatic when we found out we qualified for a child-care subsidy and just made the cut off by about $50. It was a big help and it gave us some breathing room each month when it came to balancing the budget until both our children completed preschool.
With both of my children now in public elementary school, I wonder how we ever made it through those years having to pay for preschool and child care. I still remember the feeling of sitting in my car looking at our bank statements and wondering what else we needed to cut. I think of all the young families now, just starting out in their careers, who may not qualify for child-care subsidies and need to rely on their parents to watch the kids so they can go to work. I think of the single parents who rely on these subsidies so they can go to work but worry about making too much and later becoming disqualified. I share my story because it is an all too familiar story for so many families in Hawai‘i and across the country. Parents working multiple jobs, balancing child care and careers, and making sure they’re doing everything they can to give their children a chance to succeed.
The price of child care has indeed risen sharply compared to the increase in income. While the research shows that lower-income families experience these cost pressures more than higher-income families, meaning child care cuts more into the budget than in the past, I know from first-hand experience what this means to families in Hawai‘i. In 2016, the average price of center-based child care in Hawai‘i was $11,232 and was the highest in the nation as a percentage of median income for married couples. I am grateful that Hawai‘i is now expanding preschool for 3 and 4 year olds and investing in early education. But it is still not enough as funding and resources are consistently an issue.
Thus, President Biden’s Build Back Better plan to cut child care costs in half for most American families is critical for Hawai‘i. It would ensure that families who earn up to 1.5 times the state’s median income will pay no more than 7% of their income for high quality child care for children under 5. This will free up income for working families for other needs while allowing parents to earn more. In Hawai’i, this could mean a savings of at least $6000 a year per family. Through national-state partnerships, Hawai‘i will have the resources needed to finally offer real universal preschool for all families and reduce the cost of childcare in the state.
Having these options available when our own children were preschool age and younger would have allowed my wife the option of going back to work earlier. It would have saved so much stress and worry in wondering if we would be able to make it financially for the month. These real life experiences of working multiple jobs, deciding between going back to work or caring for young children at home, and juggling financially to afford child care and preschool is an experience I share with millions of working families across the country. It’s time we invest in our young families and young children. It’s time we invest public dollars in early childhood education and care. It’s an investment that will pay immediate dividends and we can’t afford not to.