When it comes to child care in Orange County, the situation--for the community in general and working parents in particular--is grim.
Orange County has the second-greatest child population of all counties in the state--and it is growing at the average annual rate of 34,000 births a year.
More mothers of young children are working today than ever before. In fact, the fastest-growing segment of the work force is made up of mothers with children 3 years and younger. In Orange County, about seven out of every 10 mothers with children 14 and younger hold down jobs, and the ranks of the county's working women has grown in the last decade at the average annual rate of nearly 9%.
But for every child 2 and younger in a licensed day-care center, there are about 17 others waiting for a space. And there are 25 children 6 to 14 years old for every available after-school child-care slot, which accounts for the many thousands of latchkey kids who either return from school each day to an empty home or hang around the schoolyard, a shopping center or the street until a parent comes home. Some parents have to wait for more than a year to get a child into a day-care center.
What it comes down to for working parents is that quality child care in Orange County, for the most part, is unavailable, unaffordable or both. And the problem is getting worse, not better, as more women enter the work force, more families have to rely on double incomes to afford living in the county and more babies are born.
But in recent months, there has been an encouraging sign: Public officials and employers are growing more aware of the problem. Even more important, they have realized that doing something about providing more child care is of benefit not only to the community but to themselves and their employees.
Last Tuesday, at the urging of county Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, the Board of Supervisors unanimously ordered county agencies to determine the possibility of requiring new industrial and commercial developments to provide child-care services for employees. The staff was also ordered to study whether county regional park facilities that are virtually unused most weekdays can be leased to private companies as day-care centers.
Vasquez wants to work with the private sector and is urging the county, in conjunction with federal, state and city agencies, to serve as a role model by opening a child-care center for government employees in the Civic Center in Santa Ana.
The federal government is already doing that in Orange County as part of a pilot project in four U.S. locations. The Internal Revenue Service offices in Laguna Niguel are being remodeled to add a child-care center for 100 youngsters, including infants, to help attract and retain new employees and reduce the service's high turnover rate. The federal Government Services Administration is already operating 13 other day-care centers in the country, but the Laguna Niguel center is the first in California.
Earlier this month, Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa dedicated its $800,000 laboratory that will provide space for about 120 children from 5 months to 5 years of age who will receive instruction and care while their parents work and college students studying to be preschool educators observe the youngsters.
And in recent months, the Irvine Children's Fund, which solicits support from industry to support child-care facilities on school sites, reported contributions from more than 25 companies, including $25,000 from Allergan Inc.
Most public agencies and private companies have long been aware that their employees' problems with child care are ultimately their problems too, in that they can lead to high turnover and personnel costs, increased lateness and absenteeism and reduced morale and productivity. The problem still exists, but most encouraging is the growing number of enlightened employers in Orange County who appear ready to be part of the solution.