Latinos at Center of Chicken-Egg Debate Over Child-Care Funds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Latina mothers like Annabelle Rojas do not seem to like day-care centers very much. And statistically speaking, it shows.

A recently released study by the U.S. Department of Education shows that 15% of Latino preschoolers nationally spend part of their week in a day-care center--compared with 28% of white children and 29% of black children.

"It's a matter of tradition, maybe," says Rojas, pondering the reasons why, when she goes off to work as a law office manager two days a week in Monterey Park, she prefers to leave her 3-year-old daughter in the care of her mother and two sisters rather than drop her at a licensed center or a family day-care home. "Latino families are more willing to extend themselves that way, tend to live closer to each other, rather than in different states," says Rojas. "So it's a convenience factor. But it's also a trust factor."

The historic preference of Latino parents for the at-home care of relatives or neighbors has been chronicled for many years. And experts say it is particularly strong among newly arrived immigrants and those who speak limited English.

But now, when overall use of day-care facilities is up, the gap is widening. And for state and local officials earmarking funds for preschool and day-care programs, the difference in child-care choices poses a key question: If you build licensed child-care centers in Latino communities, will they come?

Advocates argue that they will--if the facilities are properly tailored to the Latino community.

Sandra Gutierrez, human resources analyst for Los Angeles County's Department of Human Resources, says Latino families do not seem reluctant to entrust their kids to day-care centers when the programs have Spanish-speaking staff, are affiliated with institutions like churches that they respect and when their fees make them affordable to working-class families.

"I think it's a question of, if you build it they will come--if it's well done," Gutierrez says.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in California, home to 35% of the nation's 4 million Latino preschoolers, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Attendance at preschool is widely considered to offer children from low-income families a leg-up on academic achievement. Yet experts say that poor Latino children are far less likely to attend preschool than low-income black or white children.

Last week, the debate heated up with the release of a study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Claremont nonprofit research organization. The first to examine the child-care practices of Latinos in Southern California, the survey found that most Latina mothers, 53%, identified a relative as their first choice for child care. Only 10% said that they would prefer a licensed child-care center over their current arrangements.

Those figures might suggest that Latinos have little enthusiasm for licensed day-care centers. But Harry Pachon, the institute's president, suggested that Latinas "have resigned themselves" to what he called "the most expedient and available thing" and suggested that the study underscores the need for building centers in Latino communities.

That argument has yet to be tested, however, in part because of a notable paucity of child-care facilities in Latino neighborhoods, both across the nation and in California.

A study conducted in part by the Policy Analysis for California Education Center found recently that among the state's poorest communities, predominantly Latino areas have half the number of preschool slots that low-income black and white communities have.

Nowhere is the supply disparity more pronounced than in Los Angeles County, says Bruce Fuller, an expert in early childhood education at UC Berkeley who helped prepare the PACE report.

In Pacoima, whose population is 59% Latino, there are just six slots in licensed day-care centers for every 100 children under 6 years old. In Sun Valley, where 47% of the population is Latino, there are nine licensed child-care slots for every 100 preschoolers. But in communities like Burbank and Pasadena, where Latinos make up 21% and 22% of the population, respectively, there are 30 and 33 licensed child-care slots per 100 preschoolers.

"It's almost like a National Geographic perspective to say that that's a choice or a preference" on the part of Latino families, says Gutierrez. "There's no choice right now. There's no choice if you don't have services available to you."

But other experts argue that the supply is a function of demand--or more precisely, a lack of demand. National statistics suggest that cultural preferences remain a strong factor in Latinos' child-care decisions. The authors of the U.S. Department of Education report compared the child-care decisions of Latino families to white and African American families of similar income, education, employment status and child age. The result: Latino families were almost 1 1/2 times as likely to have a relative caring for their child at home.

"The child-care establishment has this view that, if you build the centers, the parents will come," says Fuller, who has studied Latinos' child-care choices extensively. "That's not true."

In Washington and Sacramento, lawmakers have launched efforts to support and encourage families' use of preschool and organized day care. The Clinton administration has proposed a $21.7-billion package to double the number of child-care subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans. And the California Legislature appropriated $162 million this year in response to a request from Gov. Pete Wilson to expand preschool programs for low-income communities.

Although both of those initiatives would likely draw more Latino families into licensed day care, other factors may reinforce the widespread Latino practice of keeping preschoolers at home. For starters, congressional Republicans are expected to reject President Clinton's proposal to extend further day-care subsidies. Instead, they plan to offer tax breaks for most families in which a parent or relative stays home to care for a young child. Given a financial incentive to stay home from work or to tap a relative to care for a child, many Latina moms like Annabelle Rojas likely would do so.

Among low-income Latinos, a key element of California's welfare reform is providing a similar incentive. Under the CalWorks program, which emphasizes jobs as an alternative to public assistance, those making the transition from welfare to work may use their child-care subsidy to pay an unlicensed caregiver, such as a relative. Among day-care advocates, this policy is controversial, since it is seen as diverting needed funds from regulated child-care organizations, where they believe quality of care is better assured.

But for many Latinas living in extended families, using the subsidy to pay a relative serves two attractive purposes: It brings extra money into the family and it keeps a child at home and out of organized day care.

Fuller says that although the two sets of initiatives may seem to work at cross-purposes, they may in fact both be needed.

"You don't want the expansion of child-care centers to erode or stigmatize the indigenous supports that provide important and warm social networks for these [Latino] communities," says Fuller. "It's a double-edged sword: Do we build more preschools so Latina mothers can enter the work force and have some free time? But at the same time, can we do that in ways that are sensitive to their cultural preferences and in ways that do not erode the natural forms of support that make these communities special?"

Rojas says she has shunned formal child-care arrangements because family members are nearby, ready and willing to help. Partly, she says, it's the high cost of care at a good day-care center that has deterred her. Partly it's the fact that there are few centers near her house where her daughter, Elizabeth, would hear Spanish spoken throughout the day, as she does with her grandmother. And partly, she adds, it's just a matter of trust.

"I really don't trust anyone who isn't a family member or a close personal friend because of stories I've seen" on television, she says.

But like many Latinas, Rojas is flirting with change. Most of her middle-class Latina friends, she says, already use organized day care to some extent. And now that her daughter is 3, Rojas is cautiously exploring preschool options. But she retains a deep mistrust of these institutions and says that she would only place her daughter in a school that would allow her to hover nearby, perhaps serving as a volunteer in or around her daughter's classroom.

"I do want her to have the benefits of preschool," Rojas says. "But I do want to keep an eye on her. They'll have to allow me to stay around, so I can constantly watch her."

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