Universal Pre-K Offers Immigrant Mothers an Economic Boost

By Carolina González, Voices of N¬Y
Lizeth Hernandez’s son Alexander turned 4 in August. But amid the cake and balloons, the family had something else to celebrate. This week, (the first week of September) Alexander will start going to P.S. 1 in Sunset Park, thanks to the city’s new universal prekindergarten program. Alexander is excited to set off in the morning with his older brother Alan, who is starting kindergarten at the same school. But for his mother, Alexander’s first day of school will be possibly even more momentous: It will be the first time she is able to work outside the home since 2010, when Alexander was born. For economically struggling immigrant mothers such as Hernandez, who moved to New York from El Progreso in the Mexican province of Puebla seven years ago and married here, paid work and child-rearing are often effectively incompatible. The cost of child care – even informal neighborhood babysitters – can be prohibitive, so many families opt to have one parent, usually the mother, stay home. The city’s new universal prekindergarten program was touted mostly as a way to reduce delinquency and improve high school graduation rates. But the additional year of expense-free schooling will also allow many mothers to take up paid work, a byproduct of the program that is likely to have an economic ripple effect in low-income and immigrant communities.
Registration for pre-K seats in schools closed in mid-June, but enrollment in programs located in community-based organizations has continued throughout the summer. The city’s Department of Education aims to provide 53,000 seats, with about 40 percent of the total in community-based organizations. Both schools and community-based programs have spent the last weeks of the summer in a scramble to have their spaces and personnel for the programs ready in time. For Hernandez, 27, getting Alexander into the program at P.S. 1 in Sunset Park means she’s able to provide a major boost to her family’s finances.
Before Alan’s birth, Hernandez made between $80 and $150 a day cleaning houses, mostly in Borough Park working for Hasidic families. She is undocumented, so she expects to return to that informal work. Even at these relatively low rates, working outside the home means increasing the annual income for her household by an estimated $16,000 to $25,000, a significant step up from what her husband brings in working construction – between $30,000 and $40,000 a year.
“Of course, what makes me happiest is that Alexander will get a head start in school,” Hernandez said in Spanish. The prekindergarten program at P.S. 1 runs for the full day, which means that Alan and Alexander both start at 8:40 a.m. and are done by 3 p.m. That’s not enough time for Hernandez to hold a fulltime job, but it is enough for her to return to work as a house cleaner. Hunter College Professor Margaret Chin, whose work centers on immigrant families and second-generation Asian Americans, said that one of the city’s lowest-income groups – women who work in the informal sector – will benefit most from children entering school a year earlier. It’s likely to make a much bigger difference for these workers than for middle-class workers in higher-skilled jobs. “If they have a cleaning job, they can clean during those hours, or they might work in a store as a clerk,” Chin said. “But if you have a more formal job, with long hours, like nursing, this might not make that much of a difference for how many hours you can work.”
But even for those workers, paying for child care takes a gigantic bite out of a household’s finances. A 2010 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute to determine the amount in wages families need to cover average costs found that if two-parent families in New York State paid for regulated day care for two children below school age, it swallowed about a third of their household expenses on average, more than the average family paid for housing.
Mildred Warner, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning, has researched the economic effects of affordable child care and early education programs, and has found that various parties benefit: local businesses, those employed in child care and early education, and the families whose kids participate. In addition to the long-term educational benefits for those enrolled in early childhood education programs, she said, public money invested in quality child care or early education has an immediate return in terms of money pumped into the local economy – money spent by child-care and early-education employees, as well as by families who are able to earn more when freed up during the day. “Even in the shortest term, if you increase child care today, you get $1 in addition to every dollar you invest,” she said.
Warner’s calculations of this economic boost include direct measures – for example, the estimated $710 million that child care and early education entities buy yearly in supplies and services in New York State, plus the estimated $710 million that employees in that sector spend locally – and indirect measures, such as the taxes and economic activity produced by parents able to return to work once they have secure child care. When parents have reliable care for children of preschool age, “it promotes labor force mobilization, more productivity, and leads to less work missed,” Warner said.Notall families have been able to secure full-day pre-K seats under the new city administration’s program, and a part-time slot is often not enough time to allow for a work shift. Anahi Sanchez, for example, was hoping to return to work in a nail salon when she enrolled her daughter Jannett at their local school in Sunset Park.
But her daughter’s slot is only for a half-day program, from 8:30 a.m. to noon – not enough time for her to work even a half shift, she said. “I used to work 9 to 8 and make about $350 a week,” she said. But since her third daughter, Sandra, was born a year and a half ago, she has stayed home to care for the two youngest. Her eldest daughter, Kimberly, is 7 and about to start second grade. Though Sandra is not yet eligible for the pre-K program, which starts at age 4, free child care for Jannett would make all the difference, Sanchez said. If Jannett were in a full-day prekindergarten program, the family could afford to keep their youngest in day care until she turns three, she said. “But paying for two of them doesn’t work out for us.” The pre-K program could also help keep the family together. After Jannett was born, Sanchez was able to continue working because her parents were living nearby in Sunset Park, and took care of her during the day. But by the time Sandra was born, her parents had moved back to their hometown of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico.
“My mother offered to take her and Jannett until they were ready for school,” said Sanchez. “But my husband didn’t want to be separated, so here we are.” The practice of sending children to the home country to be taken care of by grandparents or other relatives has been common for many years among immigrant families. Chin said that the extra year of schooling that pre-K opens up may play a role in the decision of whether to send children to the home country, and for how long. This could help minimize upheaval within families, and ease children’s adjustment to the U.S. education system.“I think earlier reunification with families may end up being a big positive” outcome from having prekindergarten available, Chin said. “The younger you reunite with your child, the less disruption you have later. If your child comes back at age 3, they’re much better adjusted by age 5.” Sanchez said she still hopes to secure a full-day seat for Jannett, allowing her to go back to her old job, or at least to earn some money cleaning houses.
But income is not the only consideration. Like many immigrant families, the choices that Sanchez and her husband have made – to work or stay home, to keep the children here or send them to Mexico – are all aimed at setting up the next generation for success. “The most important thing,” she said, “is that they can all get a good education here.”

Posted by on Sep 16 2014. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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