This is the final story in a series of four about the barriers people face when trying to get out of poverty. This installment introduces us to a single mother of three who struggles with the high cost of childcare.
Jennifer Lopez often refers to herself as a superhero.
She's enrolled in Guilford Technical Community College and is working toward a degree in early childhood development. This is in addition to raising three children on her own.
“It would be okay if I'm by myself, but I have three little kids that are right beside me that I don't know what I'm gonna do,” said Lopez, 27. “Like my mom told me, ‘Once you left to be a grown up with kids, you can't come back'.”
For a long time, Lopez went without childcare while she searched for a job or tried to further her education because of how much it cost.
The average annual cost for childcare in North Carolina is approximately $9,000, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America. That's a figure out of reach for many low-income parents, like Lopez.
“Why do I need to get a job for if that's all I'm going to pay for,” she said. “Babysitting, my whole check is going in babysitting.”
Even though Lopez and the father of her children were together for five years, she said he didn’t contribute much as a partner.
“So I decided just, ‘You know what? I'm going to leave him, I'm going to do my own thing by myself,’” she said. “And it was just a lot of struggling but I felt like at least I'm struggling without a man beside me that doesn't do nothing, ya know?”
A study by National Public Radio, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that money is the biggest challenge for finding childcare. In the study, 72 percent of parents complained about this issue.
Brad Huffstetler agrees. He’s the director of development for Guilford Child Development, which also houses the Family Success Center, a place that offers job readiness courses, GED classes, computer courses and much more.
While creating the center, Huffstetler said what stopped people from finishing their education or getting a well-paying job was the cost of childcare.
“We hear parents say all the time, ‘When my children got out of childcare I felt like I got a raise,’ and it’s because of the cost of childcare,” he said.
According to Child Care Aware of America, in North Carolina, single parents can pay up to 40 percent of their income for infant-center childcare.
Lopez wants a better life for her children than the one she had. She grew up with her mother and sister and the three of them had to deal with their abusive father.
“When my dad would be around, it was just not good,” she said. “He was violent, crazy. We would run away from him and he would find us. Wherever we were at he would find us. It was crazy.”
Eventually, her father moved back to Guatemala and it was the three of them again.
Then, her mom got a new boyfriend and Lopez said they basically abandoned her at the age of 16.
After being on her own for a while, she spent three months in jail for breaking and entering. Even though she was with a group of girls, she chose to take the fall for it and since she violated her probation one too many times, Lopez was denied bond.
“I just want my kids to not struggle like I did,” Lopez said. “I want them to grow up and be happy kids and not have to go through what I went through.”
Lopez was about to get kicked out of her house when she discovered the Family Success Center. The center offers free childcare for children while their parents take classes -- something that appealed to Lopez.
“Having the childcare was one of the biggest help ever because you don’t get those opportunities around here,” she said. “I’ve tried and you can’t get them and that’s a big help.”
Huffstetler thinks the combination is a win-win for everyone.
“It just makes sense that if you know someone is there to keep your children and [you can] sort of go into a learning mode then that's taken care of and you can again be yourself and go in and learn,” he said.
UNC-Chapel Hill Law School professor Gene Nichol said sometimes it seems like the world is against parents who live in poverty.
“Childcare is exceedingly important to low-income working families, and the fact that we repeatedly slash it, is brutal,” he said.
That's been the case for Lopez. She currently not working while she's taking classes at GTCC but says her children are her motivation and she wants to do right by them.
“That's why I'm trying to be there,” she said. “To be their super hero, their super mom.”