When the contracts dried up and Kim Prince found herself without a TV writing gig, she immediately cut back on day care for her two children. Full-time care is something Prince and her husband can afford only with two full-time salaries.
"It's an obvious example of the trickle-down effect of the economy," said Prince, 37, who eliminated two days of care a week at Happy Penguins Family Childcare in Northridge, saving her monthly household budget about $600.
On the downside of Prince's decisions and others like it, however, are scores of day-care centers throughout Southern California. From small home businesses to larger admissions-based centers with waiting lists, day-care operators say they too are struggling as newly unemployed parents cut back on their children's hours, apply for scholarships or remove their children altogether.
At some centers serving middle- and working-class parents, some operators are finding it difficult to keep the doors open. Even schools with long waiting lists in affluent neighborhoods say they're having to work harder to meet scholarship demand as families find themselves unable to afford high tuitions.
Applications for tuition waivers with the Los Angeles Universal Preschool system have jumped 90% in the last fiscal year, from 475 families to 905, said Gary Mangiofico, chief executive for the organization that helps fund more than 300 preschools throughout Los Angeles County.
The nonprofit, which served about 9,147 children in the 2008-09 school year, is primarily funded through a voter-approved tobacco tax. The organization has seen increasing need especially in blue-collar neighborhoods.
"It's no doubt that a lot of these families are struggling," Mangiofico said.
For small centers such as Kenishia Colby-Martin's Children's Headquarters in Hyde Park, the double whammy of losing children and having to negotiate lower rates for other cash-strapped families pushed her to lay off one of three staff members.
"It puts me in a financial bind," said Colby-Martin, who recently lost five of 14 children in her home-based child-care center.
Kimberly Barrow, who runs a home-based day-care business in Inglewood, said she had kept prices for infant care at $155 a week for 10 years. Yet she said she has had to negotiate even lower fees for laid-off parents, who worked in various industries including real estate and retail. So far, none have pulled children out completely.
"I give them [a discount] so the child can still continue to come and not be completely taken out of the program," she said.
Barrow remembers when she could pay all of her bills by the due date. Now she's seeing more red letters in the mail.
"I'm struggling, but I continue to do it," she said. "I want the kids to continue to develop at the level that they should be."
Barrow, who is licensed under Barrow Family Childcare, moved to a bigger home June 29 to increase her capacity from 11 to 14 children. She hopes the move will help her financially and said that in these hard times, her love for children keeps her optimistic.
"I love what I'm doing, and I think most of the providers feel the same way," she said. "This is my passion. This is what I'm going to do."
Fair Oaks Preschool in Pasadena has lost 10 children but has been able to keep enrollment steady by drawing on its waiting list, said Laurie Moore, director of the school, which has 41 students enrolled. Tuition is $1,200 a month for infants, $1,100 for toddlers and $900 for preschoolers.
Moore said she's noticed that some children aren't bringing ample lunches as before; leftovers from the night before are more common.
"For some of the children, they don't have a lot in their lunch," she said. "Now we may see that they have half a sandwich and maybe a yogurt."
At Pacific Oaks Children's School in Pasadena, where a wait list attests to its high demand among many affluent parents, some families have requested midyear scholarships, Director Jane Rosenberg said. Full-time care costs about $1,400 a month, and between 20% and 25% of families receive some form of financial assistance.
"One of the things we've noticed is a higher demand for scholarships than we've ever had," Rosenberg said. As a result, she and her staff have had to bolster fundraising efforts.
Krystal Hunt, an editorial administrator with Variety, started cutting back on day-care costs in May because her child's father is out of work.
"I just think of it as a temporary situation," Hunt said. "Once everyone is back on their feet, we will go back to full-time day care."
Prince, too, said she would need full-time day care once she's back to work.
For now, she's enjoying more face time with her children and learning to deal with what she called "4-year-old" logic.
"It's not all rainbows and unicorns," she said. "It's definitely harder."