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Upon arriving to his East Ridge residence, Jimmie Lebron Williams greets his son, Kaptain Levi Williams, 1, right after work last week.

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Research quantifies local child care dilemma

polls here 3645

Chambliss Center questions

Questions asked by the Chambliss Center:

1. How do you define success for yourself?

2. How do you define success for your child?

3. What might get in the way or prevent you and your child from achieving these goals?

4. What support, resources, or information do you need to achieve these goals?

5. How do you participate in your child’s education?

6. If you had to describe your perfect neighborhood, what would it look like?

7. What ideas do you have as to how our community can help?

Source: A Report to the Community, Chambliss Center for Children and W.K. Kellogg Foundation

By the numbers

› 25.8 percent of children in Hamilton County live in poverty.

› 21.5 percent of children under age 5 live in households with income below the federal poverty line.

› 33,077 children in Hamilton County are on TennCare and 4,117 are without any form of health insurance.

› 59.7 percent of children in Hamilton County qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch and 33.2 percent of Hamilton County children receive aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Child care facilities currently operating in Hamilton County have a maximum of 10,701 spots for care of children ages 6 weeks to pre-K, enough to serve only half the children under age 5.

Source: Kids Count Tennessee (2013), American Community Survey (2014, five-year average)

Question and answers

The question
Do you have enough resources, when needed, related to each of the topics listed below?

Parents' answers

Personal health care service: 65 percent yes, 23 percent sometimes, 12 percent no

› Family fitness: 45 percent yes, 35 percent sometimes, 20 percent no

› Access to free recreation opportunities and parks: 59 percent yes, 24 percent sometimes, 17 percent no

› Housing and home ownership assistance: 40 percent yes, 25 percent sometimes, 35 percent no

› Access to high-quality affordable child care: 58 percent yes, 32 percent sometimes, 10 percent no

› Feeling safe in your home and neighborhood: 61 percent yes, 29 percent sometimes, 10 percent no

› Transportation or access to transportation: 69 percent yes, 21 percent sometimes, 10 percent no

Source: Chambliss Center for Children, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Chattanooga will face serious challenges if the rising share of young children living in poverty continues to go without the care and education other local children have access to, warns a study funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a nationally known, philanthropic heavyweight.

There are nearly 20,700 children in Hamilton County under the age of 5, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, and 21.5 percent of those children — around 4,450 — are living in poverty. And a count of child care spots for children ages 6 weeks to pre-K reveals there is room for only half of the local children under 5 years old.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of children in our community being cared for by friends and family, and maybe, or maybe not, having access to programs that help them advance developmentally — both from a literacy and social/emotional perspective — both critically important to developing the whole child," said Gloria J. Miller, the project's director and vice president of special projects at the Chambliss Center for Children.

This deficit, according to the recently released report, is among a slew of problems already plaguing less-educated, single parents in Chattanooga's booming economy of tech and tourism.

To date, there has been very little research done locally on families with young children who are struggling economically and on their unique perspectives and needs. Most local and national nonprofits rely on U.S. Census Bureau data and state health records to track and understand poverty trends.

Still, that data provides little insight into the day-to-day lives of single parents who are working but now unable to cover rising housing and child care costs that continue to soar in the city.

Kellogg approached Chattanooga's Chambliss Center a few years ago after the nonprofit was featured in an HBO documentary call "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert." The film chronicled the personal and financial challenges Gilbert and other poor, working women in Chattanooga face. The Chambliss Center was featured in the film because Gilbert's children attended the three-star center, which provides daycare on a sliding scale on income and has locations near many troubled neighborhoods.

From what they saw of the center on film, Kellogg officials were impressed and asked Chambliss Center leaders if they wanted to partner in pioneering an approach to early childhood education that would provide more access for low-income families.

But first, Kellogg wanted the Chambliss Center to do its homework and build the idea with feedback from those it sought to serve, Miller said.

"'We have an idea. You need to go out to the community and ask what they need,'" Miller said the Kellogg representatives insisted.

"And what a journey that has been."

In this round of research, more than 350 primary caregivers whose children attended the Chambliss Center — 61 percent of which were single parents — completed surveys and participated in roundtable discussions about their views on success for themselves and their children. Eighty-five percent of the parents and caregivers who participated reported an annual income of less than $35,000 a year, and 25 percent of parents surveyed had three or more children, said Mary Edwards, the project's manager.

Chambliss Center officials will be discussing next steps with their contacts at Kellogg on Tuesday, Miller said.

Research published each year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, however, that to live in Hamilton County and pay basic costs, a single adult with one child would have to earn $40,653 before taxes or make an hourly wage of $19.50 an hour.

Locally, child care alone, according to MIT, costs around $4,000 annually for a child enrolled without siblings, a pill few single working parents can swallow without state aid or sliding-scale programs, like what is offered at the Chambliss Center.

And many can't climb the income ladder to improve their lot, Edwards said, because they don't hear about the aid and opportunities the nonprofit and education community is trying to provide. For example, some parents didn't know that the United Way provided the 211 local help line, which provides vital information about local aid and community resources, including parenting classes, and financial help with late utility payments.

Word of mouth was listed as the No. 1 method of finding out out about community services and resources, which told Edwards there was a local disconnect between those who are struggling and those who aren't.

Research published last year by sociologists at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley named economic and racial segregation as one of the factors that continue to make Hamilton County one of the worst places in the country for poor and middle-class children to live.

Using anonymous federal tax records, researchers with the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard charted the geographic movement of families, as well as their earnings overtime, and found that low-income, less-educated parents who moved their children from a county with low levels of economic mobility to areas with higher rates of economic mobility increased their child's adult earnings and their chances of marriage. Sometimes this meant a move just a few counties away. Until now, many social scientists had no idea how big of a role the characteristics and values of the broader community — its investment in education, its support for single parents, etc. — played in shaping the futures of children.

"If we see that word of mouth is No. 1, then yes, it is a trust thing," Edwards said. "A lot of times, people take advantage of them and they know that. We have to be vulnerable and be willing and open with them. Listening to them, that was one of the main goals for me, for people to have a voice. No one is just sitting down with these parents and saying, 'What exactly is it that you need?'"

Local parents who participated told Edwards, who facilitated discussion groups around a series of questions, that despite wanting success for them and their children, many local roadblocks stood in the way.

Although 83 percent of parents surveyed in the study reported working, 40 percent said they had inadequate or inconsistent access to high-quality education or professional development for themselves. Another 44 percent reported they had inadequate or inconsistent employment opportunities.

More than 30 percent reported inconsistent access to transportation, but Edwards fears that number hides the grim reality that many low-income single parents, marred by bad credit and without savings or inheritances, are turning to buy-here-pay-here car lots and paying exorbitant interest for faulty cars just so they can get to a lower-wage job in the suburbs, off the bus line.

Another 60 percent of local parents surveyed said they do not have enough or sometimes do not have enough resources for housing. Thanks to unpaid medical bills, wracked up during years without medical insurance, many low-income parents find it difficult to secure a home loan because of poor credit. Many others have poor credit because they have students loans hanging over them that they can't pay back because they weren't academically or financially prepared to attend college and dropped out.

Cut out of home ownership, a larger share are turning to the rental market but finding that skyrocketing rents are nudging even one-bedroom apartments out of reach for near minimum-wage workers. To receive public housing assistance, the wait is often longer than a year.

And all of this disconnect and economic tension has been years in the making, said Jimmie Williams. He lives with his 15-month old son, Kaptain, and his son's mother and still struggles to cover costs even though both adults work full-time jobs.

Black men, in particular, have a hard time making it in Chattanooga, Williams said. Everywhere he looks, he said, there is proof.

Williams' father was sent to prison for drug dealing when he was young, and his brother, also a dealer, was killed during a home invasion several years ago, he said.

His single mother, who never attended college but worked full time her entire adult life, moved the family out of the inner city when Williams and his siblings were teenagers. Williams attended Ooltewah High School where he excelled in advanced placement courses and decided he would go to college one day. But after a few years the family couldn't afford to stay in the suburbs.

After moving back to the city and enrolling in Brainerd High School, Williams said he began to see how low expectations were affecting his friends and family. There were no advanced placement classes at Brainerd, he said. And much of what he learned his sophomore year, was a repeat of what he had learned in ninth grade at Ooltewah.

What's worse, he said, was that most of the teens around him didn't realize what a low standard they were being held to. Others — taught that college was out of their reach — didn't care, he said.

But at Ooltewah, teachers had convinced him he was smart. So he kept working toward his own dream of college until he was able to graduate from Brainerd with a Hope Scholarship and a spot at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Still, at UT he was given little guidance, he said, and financially was on his own. Not knowing what career to focus on, he enrolled as a general education student but became discouraged when he found out the cost of finishing a degree in television broadcasting.

After just three semesters, he returned to Chattanooga, with a small mountain of debt and nothing to show for it. Now he works through a temp agency making around $13 an hour for a landscaping supply company."[The local leaders], they care about the white kids first and then the black kids," he said, voicing years of pent-up frustration with local decisions he believes have hurt the African-American community, in particular. "They don't want us to advance. They want us to be behind. There is so much pressure on families."

So every day, not knowing how, Williams said he is trying to level the playing field for his son on his own.

His son will know the value of education. His son will graduate college, Williams said.

But more importantly, Williams said, his son will have his father to encourage him.

"They are making it hard on me, but, no matter what, I am going to go harder for my son so he never has to go through what I went through," he said.

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at 423-757-6601 or jmcclane@timesfreepress.com.

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