When David Hodge comes to the Project SHARE Farmstand on a given morning, he has to be ready to “go out and hustle.”

The site supervisor for Project SHARE’s Lunch and Learn summer camp at the Lincoln Street food pantry in Carlisle, Hodge is tasked with creating a summer camp for disadvantaged youths using mostly just his own ingenuity.

He finds free passes to movies. He convinces local restaurants to let the children come make food and learn about the kitchen. He combs through the nearby Heberlig-Palmer Tot Lot to make sure no bottles or other sundries from late-night visitors are there when his staff takes the children over to play.

“A lot of the kids in this area don’t spend a whole lot of time with kids outside of this area,” Hodge said about his neighborhood in northwestern Carlisle, where he was born and raised.

When Hodge was growing up, the historically poor, African-American neighborhood was very insular, he said. But that has changed with the generations.

“You look at the kids we have here now, this is a very multicultural group. Those attitudes are changing, and people are willing to come together to help out,” Hodge said.

The unifying characteristic of Project SHARE’s Lunch and Learn program is that it’s entirely free.

Staffed mostly by volunteers such as Hodge, the Lunch and Learn sessions run Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. While not a full week of child care, its three days that working parents can rest easy knowing that their children are getting food and activities — and three days a week that parents can work without paying for child care programs that are increasingly out of financial reach for families living on subsistence wages.

“I don’t want the kids to stay stagnant, that’s why I do this,” Hodge said. “I don’t want them to sit inside playing video games or running the streets all summer, and going back to school already behind the kids who can afford summer camp.”

Child care

In Carlisle, free or low-cost summer child care programs like Project SHARE’s have been growing. But demand continues to outpace supply, as the price of child care continues to climb and become out of reach for many working families.

The most comprehensive cost data for child care comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, which estimates that a week’s care went up about 70 percent between 1985 and 2011. At the same time, the average amount of family income spent on care has held steady at between 7 and 8 percent of earnings.

This average has, presumably, been held steady by rising average incomes. But U.S. income averages are pulled up by heavy gains at the top, while lower percentiles have seen stagnant wages.

The median, or 50th percentile, American family will actually spend about 20 percent of their total earnings this summer on child care, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, using data collected by the Afterschool Alliance.

“What our analysis points out is that there are not a lot of options available, and they are out of reach for many families,” said Cristina Novoa, a researcher with the Center for American Progress.

The Carlisle region is not immune to this. In fact, Cumberland County has seen an alarming trend in regard to single mothers.

According to U.S. Census data, the poverty rate for single-female households with a child younger than 5 doubled in Cumberland County between 2010 and 2016, from 25.4 percent to 52.9 percent according to the Census Bureau’s five-year average estimates.

At Project SHARE, the overwhelming need from single mothers is apparent everywhere.

“You have to realize that over 60 percent of our clients are single-female head-of-household,” Weed said.

The difficulty in affording quality care, particularly in the summer, creates a vicious cycle — women need to keep their children with them, and thus are only able to take part-time or irregular work and are unable to attend any education programs that would enable them to get better-paying jobs.

“Whenever people talk about workforce development and job skills, the first thing I bring up is affordable day care. It’s never going to work unless you have that first,” Weed said.

Supply and demand

At Project SHARE, the Lunch and Learn program is vital in allowing mothers to keep steady jobs.

Danielle Carson is an in-home elder care worker. Her youngest child, age 4, stays with her as she travels between clients. Her eldest child is able to stay at home, but her three other children, ages 6, 9 and 10, are reliant on Lunch and Learn.

“I looked into paying for other summer camps, but I have five children. There’s no way I can afford it all,” Carson said. “It really does help keep them in the routine during the summer, so they’re not in shock when they go back to school.”

Lunch and Learn makes it much easier for Semonpha Powell to keep her part-time job, she said. Her schedule is flexible, allowing her to manage when her child doesn’t have day care provisions. Her family also pitches in. Paid camps are out of financial reach.

“My mother can stay home, as well. We all trade off,” Powell said.

A study by the Center for American Progress found that labor force participation rates for women were about 3 percent lower, on average, in areas deemed “child care deserts,” areas that did not have more than one child care slot for every three children, based on census findings that one in three children younger than 5 are regularly in out-of-family care.

Given that women will work at higher rates if child care is more available, one can conclude that areas with a dearth of care options are keeping women out of the labor force who would otherwise be seeking jobs.

However, on a larger timescale and geography, labor participation by women is growing: Two out of three children between the ages of 6 and 12 have all available parents in the workforce, according to survey data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Care providers are seeing demand grow faster than they can increase supply.

“We’ve been talking about what we want to do in terms of growth because there’s such a need for child care in this area,” said Melissa Ocker, executive director of the nonprofit Carlisle Early Education Center.

This year, CEEC’s summer camp filled instantly with existing clients, Ocker said, since families who have used the center for preschool care still need a place for their children during the summer, even after the children are old enough to attend public school.

“We start getting calls in March from people wanting to enroll for the summer. We tell them we can put them on a wait list, but we don’t know if any of our existing clients will cancel, and they rarely do,” Ocker said.

CEEC has 130 children this summer, 30 for the summer camp program and the rest in year-round infant and toddler care. The center has nine classrooms and is adding two more, but would need to expand even further if it wanted to fully meet demand.

“All our parents are working parents,” Ocker said. “The need is growing, and the need for accommodations that can fit working parent’s schedules is huge.”

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