Village Life News Archives Jobs in Day Care Help Moms off Welfare

By Andrea Fine
American News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Like many other low-income women, Wendy Wagner faced two major hurdles in trying to get off welfare -- finding a decent job for herself and quality day care for her children. She found both through Childspace Management Group, an unusual for-profit company launched in 1988 by three middle-class mothers.

Childspace aims to turn day care -- one of the problems faced by mothers such as Wagner -- into a job opportunity. Wagner was on welfare when she joined the staff of Childspace almost four years ago. A former waitress, she now provides the primary support for her two daughters, 4 and 7, and also gets to spend time with them at work.

"I no longer receive cash (from welfare). Just medical benefits and food stamps, sometimes," said Wagner, adding -- "I can't wait to be done with it, though."

The idea of creating day care jobs is gaining currency as federal cuts force many mothers off the welfare rolls. Some experts in the field point to Childspace as one model of how to do this and ensure the quality of child care at the same time.

A worker-owned experiment, Childspace is now expanding to other cities. Its mission is to "improve the quality of the day care job, which has basically been held by low-income women," said Cindy Coker, a co-founder of the Philadelphia center, which serves 170 children a year at two sites -- a church activities building and a rehabilitated commercial space.

Nine years ago, Coker and two other mothers, Teresa Mansell and Karen Guyton, got started with a low-interest loan of $15,000 from the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Adrian, Mich. With help from wage-earning husbands, Mansell and Coker were able to work without pay for the first two months -- saving about $5,000. "Without that, the whole thing might have been impossible," said Coker.

Aside from their common interest in child care, the three founders have similar backgrounds in education and community activism. They see the center's structure of ownership as key to creating jobs for people like Wagner and improving the quality of child care.

After a year on the job, employees can choose to buy into the company, and nearly all do. They simply have to purchase a share of stock for $5 and then contribute $245 via payroll deductions over the next year. The profits go back to employees in the form of better wages and benefits. Salaries average $7 an hour -- compared with the $5.60 industry average, according to Coker.

While benefits are considered rare for day care workers, full-time employees of Childspace receive family health coverage and full-time childcare for one child -- both with a nominal co-pay. Even part-time workers get a benefit package. Leave provisions are generous.

For the 35 women who work there, being able to spend time with their own children is also a draw.

While Wagner admitted waitressing sometimes paid better than the $6.56 she currently receives, "It always comes back to finding child care while you're at work," she said. "Here, I'm with my kids. My little one has gone there since I started. We do pay a portion of child care, but it's nothing compared to full price."

Such feelings on the part of the staff may explain the low turnover rate at Childspace -- approximately 18 percent, in a field where the average is more than 40 percent, according to Denise Dowell, executive director of both the Childspace centers.

Experts note that the creation of day care jobs may offer part of the answer to women trying to move from welfare to work. Roughly half of the four million mothers and nine million children on welfare are expected to lose part or all of their benefits in the coming years as a result of welfare cuts, according to Deborah Weinstein, an analyst for the Children's Defense Fund in Washington.

Observers caution, however, that day care itself is no panacea. "The child care has to be good quality, and the wages for child care workers have to be increased," said Ellen Lubell of the Childcare Action Campaign, an advocacy group in New York City. "The wages of child care providers are now so low that, in fact, this work may not contribute to women's economic independence."

Crucial to the success of Childspace is business from middle-class parents who pay the full price -- and make it possible for the cooperative to both pay well and provide affordable care.

Rose McManus, a mortgage professional, said she could afford to send her 2-year-old son to any day care center in the area. However, after looking at dozens, she chose Childspace, partly because of the low turnover. "Teachers tend to stay at the school. My son has had the same teachers the whole time he's been there," she said.

While self-supporting in Philadelphia, Childspace is now spreading its model with start-up grants from diverse sources ranging from The Ms. Foundation, a feminist group, to the Campaign for Human Development, a national Catholic social agency.

Last year a new worker cooperative, the Magic Years, opened in Richmond, Calif., and another is slated to open in Denver. Discussions are currently under way in several other cities, including New York.

For the employees -- a quarter of whom came directly off welfare -- a better work package includes a voice in management. As co-owners, staff make major policy decisions on an equal basis, no matter what their staff position in the centers -- building loyalty to the firm, according to Coker.

"Now, I see my work as more of an investment and a commitment," said Wagner, who recently decided to join the cooperative.

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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