When lower-income parents first bring their children to Sharon Esquivel's in-home day care, the families are just struggling to get by.
"Oh my God, they are shopping in second-hand stores to make ends meet, and they are shopping at the 99 Cent store for food and supplies," said Esquivel, whose day care -- named Alexis Marie for Ebony Faleen, after three of her seven granddaughters -- is funded through CalWORKS, the state's main welfare program.
However, as parents earn an education, hold steady jobs, and receive child care -- all with the support of CalWORKS -- their lives, and those of their kids, begin to stabilize.
But if the state legislature approves cuts proposed in Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012-13 budget, many of these families could lose the child care they depend on. That could cause parents to quit their jobs to stay home with their kids, and sink back into poverty.
"If I lose my child care, I will not be able to work," said Julie Her, a single mother who works in sales. She has left her three kids with Esquivel about six days a week for five years. "If worst comes to worst, I will have to lose my job -- but I would hate for that to happen."
And it could cause Esquivel -- who has transformed her southeast Fresno home into a colorful day care, complete with a cozy classroom, a small library, and a backyard garden -- to be out of a job.
"I will be done -- it will put me out of business," said Esquivel, 55, who wore her hair in a bun, with curly wisps escaping on all sides, in the classic style of a long-harried mother.
Brown has proposed eliminating 62,000 child care slots -- or about 20 percent of the slots currently offered through CalWORKS -- as part of an effort to plug a $9.2 billion state budget deficit.
The proposal cuts 46,300 slots by eliminating services for families who do not meet federal welfare-to-work requirements, and 15,700 slots by reducing the income ceiling for participating families.
About half of the families who would lose their child care are Latino, and the San Joaquín Valley would be especially impacted, said Mike Herald, legislative advocate for public benefits for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Under this proposal, "the folks who really need help, and the folks who are struggling to get out of poverty, are left behind," Herald said. "It's a much higher mountain to climb out of poverty under this proposal than current law."
Reducing the number of children eligible for the program would make it harder for Esquivel -- who cares for 10 or 12 children each week, and receives about $29 per day, per child -- to maintain the day care she has operated for 21 years, or provide the extra services she offers families.
Despite previous budget cuts that have already eaten away at child care funding, Esquivel continues to transport children to and from school, and their parents to work when necessary. She feeds the kids -- sometimes their only meals outside of school -- and occasionally sends food home for mom and dad.
She provides arts and crafts projects, and teaches kids to grow their own fruits and vegetables in her backyard garden. She loves organizing outings for the kids: They eat popcorn and watch movies on Friday, take bats and balls to a local park, and go out to eat at Hometown Buffet.
Esquivel -- who grew up in Fresno as one of 14 kids born to a poor, single mom -- does all this, she said, because she knows what it is like to have nothing.
"We came from poverty and our Christmas toys were whatever the government gave us," Esquivel said. "It is important for me to give them a Christmas, give them birthday parties, and to take them to places I wish I could have gone at one time."
"It is deep for me to do all these things for them because I didn't have it, and I wanted it."
The prospect of further budget cuts hit her just as deeply.
"Everything I have and work for, I'm giving back to the children," she said.
Her one fear for herself, she said, is affording medical insurance if she loses her job.
"Who is going to take care of my medical bills?" asked Esquivel, a diabetic with high blood pressure.
As Esquivel waits for the state legislature to determine the fate of the program, her only option is to do what she excels at.
Last Thursday, she helped a young girl brush a doll's hair, poured another glass of milk for a thirsty boy, and prepared tacos for the five children under her watch that evening.
When a mother who works the early shift at a restaurant asked if her two kids could spend the night at Esquivel's house, and if Esquivel could take the kids to school in the morning, Esquivel's answer came swiftly: "of course."
"We are just grinning and bearing," Esquivel said of the proposed cuts.
Her families are crossing their fingers, too.
"Without child care, I would lose my job, and have to go back on welfare," said Ana Jones, a single mother of two.
Jones got off welfare about three years ago, and works part-time at the Internal Revenue Service. For about a year, she has dropped her children off of Esquivel's at 5 a.m., so she could be at work by 6 a.m.
"I'm going to pray about it," she said. "We just have to wait and see what happens."
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