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San Francisco’s proposed budget siphons funds for affordable child care access

Tracy Tsiropoulos reads to children at Pacific Primary in San Francisco on Monday. Prop. C came with the future promise of universal child care, but now it faces cuts under the mayor’s budget. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Tracy Tsiropoulos, parent of a 2-year-old, found herself on both ends of San Francisco’s child care crunch.

As an off-and-on early childhood worker for the past decade, she—with her husband's income factored in—made too much to qualify for subsidized child care, but too little to afford it out of pocket. 

In order to look after her daughter, Tsiropoulos worked from her San Francisco home as an operations manager for yoga studios instead of using her degree in and passion for early childhood education. But once her daughter began walking, Tsiropoulos was “white-knuckling” through the days waiting for child care she could afford. 

San Francisco’s high cost of living combined with low availability of spots for infants and toddlers means both large waitlists and exorbitant child care costs that can reach $29,000 a year, per kid.

But last July, Tsiropoulos qualified for Wu Yee Children’s Services, a nonprofit child care service throughout the city, after the income qualifications expanded for subsidized care, helping families like hers in the middle zone. Because of that, she was able to return to work at Pacific Primary four months ago—with a $10 hourly pay bump, in stark contrast to when she worked there eight years ago. 

“It’s a huge relief to sustain a decent life in San Francisco,” Tsiropoulos said. “I would definitely not be here providing high-quality care if I didn’t have day care that was covered.”

A child plays alone at Family Connections Centers' Early Childhood Program in San Francisco on Aug. 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

This was all made possible by a June 2018 ballot measure, Proposition C, which enacted a commercial-vacancy tax in the hopes of raising $100 million or more per year to provide universal child care to San Francisco families. Advocates envisioned a comprehensive program, including stipends for parents who rely on day care as well as higher wages for caregivers.

A lawsuit and other pandemic-era delays waylaid Prop. C’s full implementation, and its beneficiaries only began to see results in the past year or so. And now, five years after San Francisco voters enshrined it in city law, budget deficits may put universal child care further out of reach. 

The Rise of ‘Baby C’

San Francisco is notoriously short on children; as the cliche goes, there are more dogs than kids under 18. It’s unclear how many families require services like day care, but the city’s population of toddlers keeps dropping. Between April 2020 and July 2022, San Francisco saw a nearly 12% decrease in residents under the age of 5.  

The existing early childhood education system—in essence, caring for and teaching kids up to age 5—is complicated, riddled with agonizing waitlists for families and high costs that drive parents out of the workforce. This was the genesis of Prop. C—widely referred to as “Baby C,”

to prevent confusion with another Prop. C enacted six months later. 

After Baby C’s funds were released in April 2021, the Department of Early Childhood raised wages to about $28 an hour for more than 2,000 educators while expanding child care facilities. It also raised the subsidy eligibility to families making 110% of area median income, or $152,000 for a family of four.

But now, only two years later, Mayor London Breed’s proposed budget may take $30 million over the next two years from Baby C revenue to plug a $780 million deficit. 

The mayor has also proposed altering the tax for commercial subleases in a bid to spur Downtown activity, costing early childhood initiatives another $17 million per year. In short, Prop. C’s funds could be siphoned off at both ends.

Early childhood education advocates went to City Hall with a gaggle of toddlers in tow to protest these proposed cuts this month.

People gather at a rally against proposed cuts to “Baby” Prop C. at City Hall on Thursday. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

“This is not the time to cut back on our commitment to children in San Francisco,” said Monica Walters, CEO of Wu Yee Children’s Services. “We fought really hard for this money. We’re just getting started and don’t want to go back.” 

Inside City Hall, supporters of universal child care are equally dismayed.

“When we passed Baby Prop. C, the promise was for universal child care,” Supervisor Myrna Melgar told The Standard. “We’re nowhere near being there.”

San Francisco has roughly 35,000 children under 5. Prior to Baby C’s passage, more than 2,400 of them were on waitlists for subsidized care. That gap can have consequences for their development.

Quality early childhood education means a greater likelihood of graduating from high school, earning more money and, eventually, of buying a home. It can also be associated with reduced delinquency and crime, according to a fact sheet by the California Assembly.  

“When you invest in early childhood education, you’re not seeing those results for years later,” Tsiropoulos said. “[Cuts] seem like a quick fix, but in the end, you’re going to suffer; the children are going to suffer. We need to be forward-thinking.”

Children play and learn at Family Connections Centers' Early Childhood Program on Aug. 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A lack of childcare can also hamper parents’ ability to build their careers.

“I probably would have stayed powerless,” said Maria Antonieta Jandres, a mother in the Tenderloin who was able to get a degree after obtaining assistance through the Children’s Council San Francisco, which helps families navigate the system and referrals. “[People] don’t see child care as crucial, but it is. It’s interrelated with the other needs of families.” 

Making Universal Child Care Universal

To child care advocates, the proposal to reduce Baby C’s revenue summarizes taking from the future of children for short-term gains—eating the city’s seed corn, in a way. But the details of a proposed two-year change quickly wade into the minutiae of City Hall budget wonkery.

Mayor London Breed defended her proposal in a Medium post, claiming that short-term changes won’t affect existing early child care and education services but allow the city to continue funding food banks. Because of the stalled use of Baby C funds while the tax was collected, it has a current balance of about $400 million—a hefty amount to work with. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, left, reviews the supplies needed after an earthquake with students at Bryant Elementary School on Oct. 18, 2018. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Stimulating Downtown San Francisco activity, the mayor added, will also lead to long-term stability for the child care funding.

“At the end of the day, we are making this change to help ensure that no children, families, or seniors go hungry here in San Francisco,” Breed wrote.

The Department of Early Childhood, which works under the mayor, echoes Breed’s assurances that no existing programming would be impacted by a loss of $30 million. It even expects to expand on existing programs. For example, while the department invests $70 million in child care facilities and $30 million in educator pipeline programs, as many as 12,000 families in all will have access to day care vouchers.

“We have already made progress towards this goal and will continue pursuing an equitable and universal early childhood education system for our youngest residents,” said Jonathan Rubinsky, a department spokesperson, in an email. 

So who’s still left out? The city aims to increase subsidy eligibility to households making 200% of the area median income, covering an additional 20,000 children, according to the Children’s Council of San Francisco. 

Melgar’s office noted that there is still much to do in order to deliver on Baby C’s ambitions. Many home-based providers, for instance, remain outside the city’s network of subsidized care, and California’s impending expansion of transitional kindergarten to allow 4-year-olds into public schools will require further investment.

The continued existence of child care waitlists is strong evidence that demand continues to outstrip supply. In May, nearly 2,000 children through age 13 were waiting to secure early care and education financial aid.

“When we say we’re good, there’s no cuts,” Melgar added. “We say we’re good with the situation today, and we’re not going to fulfill that promise of universal child care.”