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In Dire Economy, Things Are Rosy for Child Care

March 5, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Despite the recession, enrollment has increased at many day cares in the area.

Terrible economic news is beginning to become the norm. Each month, companies announce closures and job losses at rates not seen in decades. But one industry has thus far remained relatively immune to the recession: child care.

Federation Early Learning Services -- which serves 15 locations across three counties and receives money from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia -- reported that while some families had pulled out of child care or cut back as a result of the recession, enrollment is strong and the organization was close to its budget projections for the year.

As the economy continues to sour, leaving more parents at home during business hours, families looking to save may choose to reduce the amount they spend on child care, and day care businesses may eventually feel the squeeze. But, at least for the time being, many centers -- Jewish or otherwise -- are finding that they've largely been exempt from the economic downturn.

As an example, FELS president and CEO Maddy Malis recently ran a comparison of loss of children between last September and now with the same time period last year. She found that for the 111 losses this year, the losses for the previous year were nearly identical -- 106.

She said the cause of the losses could be more related to the economy this year than last year, when losses might have been due to families moving, children moving on to grade school or the like.

"I don't think the whole thing has shaken out yet," said Eileen Weingram, pre-school director at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. "I think that a lot of us are wondering what kind of impact this is going to have. We're just about to do registration for September, and a lot of people are coming and looking into day care for their babies. So far, it doesn't seem to have had an impact, but we're not done yet."

At nearby Congregation Keneseth Israel, also in Elkins Park, the baby business is booming.

"What's really happened is that my enrollment has doubled over the year because we put in an infant center," said Beth Berman, director of early childhood education. "Jewish pre-schools are changing, because parents need childcare earlier than they did before. Rather than just two or three mornings a week, they need a full day."

Rosters Remain Full

One thing that may help day care centers keep playpens full is the simple fact that, no matter the state of the economy, people keep having babies.

Weingram noted that it's the babies that haven't even been born yet that are helping keep her rosters full. She said that expectant parents are registering at the same rate -- and maybe an even higher rate -- than before the economic crisis.

"I don't think they can afford for the moms not to be at work," she said.

Day care chains are feeling the pinch, too, including Play & Learn, which has 10 locations throughout the area. The group's executive director, Judith Cooper, said that while one location recently closed -- a decision in the works prior to the recession, she said -- nearly all the remaining locations are doing as well or better than they were last year. Those that aren't, she said, are suffering from socio-economic issues based around their location and those they serve.

Cooper said the difference is that some people are leaving because they are losing their jobs. The requests for scholarships have also doubled, she said.

But while the phones are still ringing for now, she knows that as children move on from day care to pre-school and kindergarten, business could suffer if a new brood doesn't take their place.

Centers are also doing what they can to cut costs. But as Berman noted, the largest expense is staff salaries -- generally, not an easy thing to cut.

She said that she may be forced to cut some of the special events, such as an animal exhibit from the zoo.

FELS' Malis noted that the industry was doing well due, in part, to a renewed emphasis on child care from high-profile legislators like Gov. Ed Rendell and President Obama.

In the end, however, day care is simply a requirement for many families. "Unless they've lost their jobs completely, people need childcare," she said. "You can't live without it. People will go out to dinner less and go to the movies less, but what's the alternative? Where are they going to put their children?"  

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