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Thousands of families are eligible for child care subsidies. Actually getting them? Good luck.

When her son Jeremiah was born, Bertha Terrones spent weeks calling centers to find care. Eventually, after months passed, she went to visit in person.

"You feel helpless, like, you’re watching and can’t do anything about it because there’s no progress," said Terrones, in Spanish. "The programs aren’t reaching the cities where these services are needed most."

Terrones, who lives in Cudahy, in southeast L.A. County, spent more than a year on a waitlist. Tens of thousands of families across L.A. County face similar experiences. While 51 percent of babies and toddlers in the county are eligible for state-subsidized child care programs, only 6 percent of these children are served, according to new analysis by Advancement Project California, released on Tuesday.

"As the system stands, we’re sort of in a lottery system and it is luck as to whether or not children end up receiving these dollars," said Karla Pleitez Howell, education equity director at the Advancement Project.

The market price for licensed care for children under the age of two can easily outpace the cost of in-state tuition for University of California schools. When low-income families can’t find subsidized care, it could mean parents turn to low-quality settings, or with no other options, stay out of the workforce.

State funding for early care and education was severely cut during the recession and still lags behind 2007-08 levels. And many communities do not have the infrastructure – enough spaces in home day cares and centers – to meet the demand.

"The reason this really matters is we know that babies that start behind are going to stay behind," said Pleitez Howell. "And if we don’t do something about this crisis now, we’re going to continue to see the same sort of opportunity gap, achievement gap and income gap continue that we’ve seen in the past."

Families are eligible for state subsidies if their income falls below 70 percent of the state median income. The Advancement Project analysis only examines the availability of state subsidies, and doesn't capture families participating in federal programs, like Early Head Start, which serves children under 3 from income-eligible families.

Yet even with support from federal programs, demand for infant and toddler care still heavily outweighs the supply. According to the latest needs assessment from the L.A. County Office for the Advancement of Early Care and Education, only an estimated 13 percent of working parents with infants and toddlers in Los Angeles County have access to licensed care. The Advancement Project plans to release similar analysis of four other California counties later this year.

Terrones has two adult children and understands the difference quality care can make. She wanted that for her new baby, who is now 18-months-old. After waiting more than a year, she now receives visits at home from a professional early educator who works with her son. She's thrilled to see her son's motor and social skills develop. 

Many children age out before receiving care.

Advancement Project California