The nation's economic troubles play out one family at a time at the New Horizons Learning Center in this struggling city two hours northwest of Chicago.
Some parents have been laid off and must pull their children out of the day care center until they can find a job. Others' employment hours have been cut, so they reduce their kids' attendance to a few days a week.
Financial strains prompt one mother to pay with a postdated check. Another chooses to work in the middle of the night – after putting her kids to bed – because of the extra dollar per hour that shift brings. And the stress shows on the faces of the children who can't understand why their friends, without explanation, stop coming.
“They act out more, cry a lot more,” said Diane Kesterton, director of New Horizons, where a 38-child enrollment has been halved to 19 in just three months. “They don't know what's happening, they're confused.”
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Parents nationwide are telling day care providers they must scale back or abandon their services. Instead, they keep kids at home with grandparents or upend their work-life balance because gas and food prices have become prohibitive and average child care costs outpace rent and mortgage payments – even for those drawing salaries.
“I was paying more in day care than I was making in work,” Meredith Hartigan, a Rockford single mother of two, said in explaining her decision to pull her 4-year-old daughter out of day care in August and switch to working nights and weekends.
Hartigan said her $38,000 office-job salary couldn't cover her bills and $6,900 in annual day care costs.
To make matters worse, Hartigan's ex-husband's salary as a roofer is set to plummet as it does every winter – and she's increasingly concerned his business won't pick up next spring as it has in years past.
Child care providers have similar fears as centers that have had waiting lists for as long as anyone can remember now find themselves scrambling for children. Many are for the first time offering part-time services or changing hours to accommodate the growing number of parents working off shifts, or struggling to make ends meet.
“It is not about people making choices to drive a second car,” said Diane Stout, executive director of Circles of Learning, also in Rockford. “For many low-income people, it is making a choice for food.”
Diana Ochoa, a 27-year-old who lives with her sons, 4 and 6, at her parents' house in Rockford, said that – even after a sharp decline in gasoline prices – she can afford to fill her tank only enough to bring her youngest boy, Kenneth, to New Horizons three days a week.
When she can't afford child care, Ochoa stays awake through the day to care for her son, at least until her parents come home from work.
It's not just low-wage earners feeling the pinch. Day care costs average between $3,380 to $10,787 a year for just one preschooler, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.
In June, well before Wall Street's tumultuous fall, research firm IBISWorld Inc. predicted day care revenues would climb by just 1 percent in 2008 – just more than a third as much as in each of the previous two years.
In the Rockford area, where manufacturing jobs have disappeared by the thousands in recent years and the unemployment rate jumped to 8.8 percent in September, day care providers are worried next year could be even bleaker.