AUSTIN (KXAN)– On a hot June morning, there is lots of excitement at the Mariposa Family Learning Center.

“Chili!” exclaimed one student, holding up a red chili pepper.

The east Austin child care facility holds a garden day every Friday.

“They invite parents… to come and do a garden, see the kids in practice. It’s just beautiful,” said Abdallah Teffert, who has two children there.

“Let’s go digging!” chants his son. “Let’s go digging!” his teacher responds.

Finding Mariposa wasn’t easy for Teffert and his wife. When they first moved to Austin from Algeria, they were trying to learn English, look for jobs, and search for affordable child care.

He said if he hadn’t found Mariposa two years ago, he would’ve had to leave his kids with neighbors while he and his wife worked.

Students learning at the Mariposa Learning Center in east Austin. (Photo: Tahera Rahman/KXAN)
Students learning at the Mariposa Learning Center in east Austin. (Photo: Tahera Rahman/KXAN)

“It was crazy,” he said. “I would just leave it on my neighbors. I mean, if I cannot afford it, I cannot afford it,” Teffert said.

Mariposa charges little to nothing for tuition.

It’s located in a child care desert, according to Children at Risk, a research nonprofit.

Their new map indicates that Mariposa’s zip code, 78741, has no spots open at subsidized child care facilities, per 100 children of working parents who are below 200% of the poverty line.

Mariposa is a subsidized facility, but it’s at capacity with 12 students.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines child care as affordable at 7% of a household’s income.

According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the median household income for families in 78741 was $46,815 last year. That’s compared to $81,998 for the entire Austin MSA.

That means, by the HHS’ definition of affordable childcare, families in Mariposa’s zip code can only afford to spend $273 a month on tuition.

The average cost of tuition in Austin is $1,100 a month, according to a software company for preschools and child care called Brightwheel Connect.

Austinites aren’t the only ones having to spend too much on child care.

A new survey indicates that 51% of American families spent 20% or more of their annual household income on child care in 2021. That’s up from 31% of families who were in that position in 2019.

The survey found to pay for it, parents are considering taking on a second job, reducing hours at work, or leaving the workforce completely to stay at home.

This chart shows the increase in different childcare costs since before the pandemic began in 2019.

The folks who run Mariposa recognize the struggle, especially for their families. They subsidized tuition for 98% of their families last year.

Executive Director Sheila Pharis said the budget is comprised mostly of donations, followed by grants and subsidies. Most of that all goes to pay teachers and staff.

Pharis said the root of child care affordability challenges is wage stagnation over the last 50 years and historic income inequality.

Offering essentially free child care helps families to work, and eventually start paying what they can, said Development Director Adryana Aldeen.

Students learning at the Mariposa Learning Center in east Austin. (Photo: Tahera Rahman/KXAN)
Students learning at the Mariposa Learning Center in east Austin. (Photo: Tahera Rahman/KXAN)

“There are a couple of families within the Mariposa family that have come willingly and say that they can pay $50 a week or maybe a little bit more, but if they cannot, we try to provide as much as we can all of it,” she said.

Aldeen said the gestures show that families just need breathing room.

“It says that many of the families who are here — and many of them are minorities, immigrants — that they want to do their best for their families, and they are working hard, but they have just peace of mind to be able to go and work as much as they can,” she said.

But as a nonprofit, operating this way isn’t easy.

The facility is trying to expand to meet the need, adding an infant room that would nearly double capacity.

They’re raising $400,000 in operating expenses for 2023, including that second classroom of eight infants and supporting staff.

They’re also raising $100,000 in renovations to update 60-year-old facilities.

Aldeen said they could use more funding from the city — which can also help subsidize more care at other facilities, to help more families.

“I think that all of us in Austin can think, ‘What can we do even if it’s a small amount of time, talent or treasure to share so we can help other people in our community?'” she said.