Unless your income is among the highest in San Francisco, or even among the lowest, finding and affording child care may be just wishful thinking.
Nearly 60% of San Francisco children live in families that struggle to afford child care, which can run up to $4,000 per month for a family with two kids between the ages 0 to 5, according to estimates from the Insight Center, an economic research and advocacy organization.
“There is not enough quality, affordable child care to meet the needs of all San Francisco families,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of the Children’s Council of San Francisco, the city’s largest child care resource and referral agency.
“Over the last 2½ years, we’ve seen firsthand that without enough child care, our city cannot function,” she added. “Employers need workers, and workers need child care. It’s like we say: ‘Without child care, San Francisco doesn’t work.’”
Financial assistance to offset child-care costs is available, and for many low-income families, it is essential to making ends meet. But a large swath of families doesn’t qualify and struggles to pay out of pocket.
Some of the available subsidies have a cap at the federal poverty line — currently $23,030 for a family of three — and the highest income ceiling is around $78,000 for a family with one infant. Altogether, roughly a third of all San Francisco children qualify.
But that leaves a glaring gap for households in which child care is unaffordable and subsidies are out of reach.
It’s felt particularly tight for parents earning anywhere between around $89,000, the cap for assistance for a family of four, and $167,000. That’s the estimated minimum household income needed for a family with two young children in San Francisco to cover all basic needs including child care, housing, food and taxes, according to estimates from the Insight Center.
Making ends meet
Fromer of the Children’s Council knows the child care crunch more than most. The sixth-generation San Francisco resident was once a client at the organization she now leads seeking support to find child care for her two sons while pursuing a better job.
“Although we are making progress in addressing the lack of child care in San Francisco, currently there are only enough licensed child care slots to accommodate 15% of infants,” said Fromer, who was born and raised in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.
Those with a close eye on The City’s economic rebound after COVID-related hardships are also paying attention. While significant portions of San Francisco’s workforce have embraced work-from-home days, that hasn’t removed the need for child care altogether.
“Work from home solves the drop-off and pick-up problems, maybe, but it doesn’t solve the need for child care. It’s probably the same constraint it’s always been,” said Ted Egan, San Francisco’s chief economist, pointing out the difficulty of both working and watching young children at home simultaneously.
A household with two adults, one infant and one preschooler on average spends about $4,000 per month on childcare in San Francisco, according to the Insight Center. Meanwhile, the median rent in San Francisco is $3,750, according to Zillow estimates.
Child care is a challenge across California as the cost of living continues to rise. But here in San Francisco, the price point is at a premium compared with other counties. For example, the same Insight Center calculator estimates that the same family must pay $3,766 in Alameda County, $3,663 in Contra Costa County, $3,889 in Marin County and $3,144 in Los Angeles County.
“The cost of child care is so much. You sometimes have to pick — it’s housing, my career or child care,” said Maria Antonieta Jandres, a mother who lives in the Tenderloin.
At the time she became pregnant, Jandres was living in shelters and on friends’ couches when she visited a prenatal program for homeless women. There, she was informed about child care subsidy options and places like the Children’s Council, which helps parents through paperwork and other tricky parts of the processes.
“The wait list for child care was so long, it was scary,” she said, adding that having someone walk her through child-care assistance programs was game changing.
With her assistance, Jandres was able to complete coursework at San Francisco State University and earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. She now provides legal services in housing and real estate.
Anyone looking for assistance with child care in San Francisco must first navigate a system of paperwork, changing income thresholds and waiting lists. But many parents also struggle to navigate financial assistance.
Currently, there are 475 children ages 0 to 5 on the waiting list for a subsidized child care spot in San Francisco, the majority of which are between 0 to 3, according to the Children’s Council.
Today’s waiting list is actually shorter than past years, particularly for pre-school-age children. But long waiting lists for infant care are trickier to solve. One reason is that safety regulations require a lower caregiver-to-child ratio for younger kids, making it more expensive to care for infants.
What’s more, those who do obtain subsidies may not get a slot in the program of their choosing because some funds are only accepted at specific child care sites.
For Jandres, subsidies covered virtually all of her child-care expenses while she was still homeless. But once she began working, she no longer qualified for the same level of assistance and had to begin paying $200 per month in what are known as “family fees.”
On the other end of the spectrum, people with resources to pay out of pocket will often seek alternative options such as private daycare centers or nannies.
“We started sorting out child care as soon as we got pregnant,” said Jonah Horowitz, a father of a six-month-old in San Francisco.
Through an online community message board in their Bernal Heights neighborhood, Horowitz and his spouse arranged a set up where they would share a nanny with a neighbor for five days a week while the couple works a hybrid schedule at home and in their respective offices.
“We are spending as much on child care as we are spending on housing,” said Horowitz. “It’s a pretty significant burden, but we are fortunate that we can afford it.”
The cost of child care typically decreases as a child gets older. Compared with about $4,000 in San Francisco, the national average costs for an infant are around $1,200 per month, $900 for a toddler, and $760 for a preschooler, according to data from the Center for American Progress.
Investing in child care
This month, Mayor London Breed announced a new Department of Early Childhood to manage initiatives that aim to support families with young children in San Francisco. The department will oversee more than $70 million annually aimed at growing the early care workforce and $40 million to increase rates and expand access to subsidies, among other efforts.
The creation of the new department is part of the Mayor’s Children and Family Recovery Plan, announced in February, which charts out a five-year program to address the mental, physical and economic constraints facing families and young children coming out of the pandemic. It also aims to increase wages for childcare workers, a key component of providing enough slots in child-care facilities that are beholden to strict caregiver-to-child ratios.
Other efforts to streamline the child-care system include a new state-funded website that helps match families with providers, called mychildcareplan.org, and lists every licensed provider in California along with important information like their safety record and vacancies.
Pandemic relief dollars also provided temporary expansions in money to support the child-care systems and subsidies. And family fees were waived during the pandemic for subsidy beneficiaries through June 2023.
Still, there’s a long way to go to help families out who are stuck in the middle.
Jandres hopes that stronger social safety nets and increased minimum wages can make San Francisco a more inviting place for those who are calculating whether or not to have families here.
“We aren’t helping families when we just put a small piece of tape on the whole. We need to address that parents need better wages and continued support,” she said. “It’s a shame it is this hard. We should be encouraging families to better their education and savings.”