Child care can be prohibitively expensive in many parts of the country, and the Cape Fear region is no exception. Costs can leave parents scrambling, but also prompt some–most often mothers–to exit the workforce altogether. 

A recent federal analysis found child care costs are untenable for most families and that mothers’ employment drops as these expenses rise. A commonly cited federal affordability benchmark suggests child care costs should take up no more than 7 percent of a family’s gross income.

But the median annual cost of infant care in New Hanover County, $11,940, would eat up about 19 percent of the median household’s gross income; for a toddler, at $10,710 a year, it’d consume 18 percent.

Working parents of two children that aren’t yet old enough for public school face paying what amounts to a second mortgage.

Care costs even push some parents into debt.

“If you have $15,000 coming off the top for child care, that doesn’t leave as much for rent and food and utility bills,” said Jane Morrow, executive director of Smart Start of New Hanover County. “And when you’re having children, you’re probably in the first part of your career.”

Two-thirds of young children in New Hanover County live in a home where their sole parent or both parents work. About 4,340 children under 6, roughly 36%, are enrolled in licensed care centers here, according to state data.

The county’s median household income is about $62,360 (which translates to roughly $4,040 in take-home pay each month). At this gross income level, a family of four earns too much to qualify for local early-child-care subsidies.

Wilmington’s average rent is about $1,570. That means parents of an infant and a toddler could be left with as little as $582 to cover all their remaining monthly bills. Perhaps then it’s no wonder people are waiting longer to have kids, or having fewer of them. 

Beyond cost, finding an opening can be daunting. Even qualifying parents who secure vouchers struggle to find care due to staffing issues that restrict capacity, said county social services director Tonya Jackson.

This month, pandemic stimulus funds for child care programs run out, and Morrow said the industry is watching to see how many centers will close without the support. Researchers worry the expected closures could have dire economic consequences.

New Hanover County child care employees earn between $11 to $12.45 an hour, according to state data. It’s a demanding and specialized job, Morrow said, but with the industry’s narrow margins, increasing pay risks pricing people out.

“We can’t just keep raising rates without making it unaffordable for families. So it’s this kind of bind, the way we’ve set up childcare in our country,” Morrow said. “We have some [public] support, but it’s just not enough.”

The county has funded some public preschool classrooms that prioritize low-income families or children with other risk factors, and nonprofit options are in the works, but still, it’s not enough to meet local needs.

Last month, Cape Fear Community College announced it would provide free drop-in childcare for its students, a welcome addition. Made possible by a $250,000 grant from the New Hanover Community Endowment, the college says it’s the first statewide to offer this free service to its students.

“Many parents at CFCC cannot make ends meet,” said college spokesperson Christina Hallingse. Students can get up to four hours of daily care for their 2- to 12-year-olds in the pilot program. For now, it can accommodate up to 20 children at a time, and the college hopes to increase that. 

“That is, I would imagine, a huge relief to the students,” Morrow said. “Parents tell us that worries about child care affect their productivity; it affects their ability to stay employed.”

Morrow’s Smart Start also earned a grant from the endowment last year, and is using its $120,000 to survey informal care arrangements (nannies, unlicensed care centers, grandmas, etc.) Studying these setups can help Smart Start connect more families to early child development resources, she said.

As part of its sophomore grant cycle, the endowment identified big proposals for early childhood education as a priority for investment. While transformational change is still likely years on the horizon, programs like these offer some near-term solutions.

– Johanna F. Still

Read this newsletter online or contact The Dive team with tips and feedback at Catch up on last week’s edition covered in a brief audio segment on WHQR.

Why Some Stay

Climate change is making life along the Lumber River more uncertain. But for many people, moving isn’t a meaningful option.

A Lumberton resident surveys the rising water on Sept. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

With 60,000 members, the Lumbee are the largest Native tribe in the eastern U.S. Many of their ancestors settled in Robeson County after the 1830 Indian Removal Act, in the less desirable swamplands around the Lumber River.

Now devastating hurricanes have repeatedly threatened the community’s low-lying homes. Raising homes and moving people out of flood plains are often suggested as options, but limited resources complicate things, Katie MacKinnon reports for The Assembly on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Florence’s landfall.

But more than money, it’s often the community that keeps people there.

“For most of us, we view this land as land that God put us on,” said Tasha Oxendine, public relations manager for the Tribe. “That it’s not just a place that we were born, but it’s the place that we were put and this land provides for us. It has protected us and kept us safe while most tribes were removed from the Southeast.”

The Ask

If you’re listening to WHQR over the next week, you’ll hear me and my colleagues touting all things public radio during our fall pledge drive. We know we sound corny sometimes, but I assure you, we mean it. 

Which is a good thing, since faking it for a whole week would be exhausting. 

I’ve got a list–literally, it’s printed out and I’ll be carrying it around for the next week–of reasons for people to support WHQR. We love NPR, the BBC, and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me. 

But the local news WHQR brings to our community is what’s nearest and dearest to my heart. 

WHQR’s collaboration with The Assembly to produce this newsletter is part of that. We’re lucky to have a supportive community that helps us keep the lights on at WHQR, but, frankly, it’s not enough to cover all the stories that need it: the big ones, the complicated ones, the ones that require the long view to really grasp. 

I’m asking readers of this newsletter to help us keep up WHQR’s end of the bargain in this partnership. It’s what lets us keep doing what you’ve told us you want: smart, in-depth reporting on stories here in southeastern North Carolina. 

OK. Some of you already know the deal, but just in case, here’s how to make a pledge of support.

– Benjamin Schachtman

Around the Region

Hospital Tea Party: Oak Island residents are tired of paying to support the not-for-profit Dosher Memorial Hospital, and last week, the town council passed a resolution seeking to end the tax. The State Port Pilot reports the hospital is reliant on tax revenues to support ongoing capital projects.

Choo Choo Dreams: An ambitious effort to revive a passenger rail service in Wilmington could see a boost this fall when federal grant funding is expected to be announced. WHQR reports that officials’ desire to connect all of the state’s major metro areas is currently more than a pipe dream, but not yet quite a reality.

The New Kid: An application for a new charter school in Wilmington will be among the first the state’s charter school review board considers after a change in state law last month. Port City Daily reports on the proposed 582-student school that would be located midtown.

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Around the State

Credit: (Photo illustration by Nicole Moore, image credit AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

The Troubled Last Days of Speaker Tim Moore

As he moves toward finishing an unprecedented 10-year reign, the House speaker leaves a complicated legacy.

A Judge, A Reporter, And a Notebook

A case in Guildford County raises questions about a reporter’s First Amendment rights.

Public Money, Private Schools

Lawmakers plan to vastly expand Opportunity Scholarships, but questions about oversight, accountability, and what it will cost public schools remain.

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