Markayla Keys woke before the kids — as many moms do — seizing an early morning opportunity to check tasks off her to-do list without interruption. She needed to fill out some job applications, check on the status of others, and then there was the big thing: finding child care so she could accept any job offer she might receive. 

She headed first to a Starbucks not far from the home she and her family recently moved into off eastern Tidwell Road — starting a new life in Texas after years in Louisiana. No one at Starbucks needed lunch made or laundry folded. And she sat in luxury, pouring over a list of ophthalmology gigs where she hoped to return to work as a tech or surgical coordinator. After a half hour or so, she got the call: The kids are up, her boyfriend said. So Mom returned back home for a summer break day with four children.

She packed up the kids — her daughter Krystiana Joubert, 12; her son Kaymen Keys, 3; and her stepsons Andrew and Mason Mouton, who are 11 and 3, respectively — and drove everyone to nearby North Channel Library, on the northernmost edge of Channelview. She planned to apply for library cards and patch together some summertime activities during which the kids could learn and play, and she could continue her job hunt at the tiny tables inside the children’s area. 

What she found was a potential game changer: Harris County’s new Early REACH day care program, which is opening up to 1,000 free spots for families like Markayla’s. 

Day care desert

Harris County is a day care desert. Across the county, 2,600 day care providers offer about 100,000 seats to children between birth and age 4. That might sound like a lot, but there are over 280,000 children in that age range in need of care. So at best, there are enough day care spaces for about 40 percent of the kids who need them. But the system is not at its best. 

Only nine in 100 seats can be deemed “high quality,” according the Texas Workforce Commission’s Rising Star quality rankings, which rate day cares on several metrics including teacher certification and teacher-child interactions. And take it from me — a woman who began her day care hunt in her first trimester and wasn’t able to place her daughter in her current classroom until she was nearly 7 months old, well after my maternity leave was over — those seats can feel nearly impossible to find. 

Then comes the problem of affording them: The average cost of child care in Texas per child for one year is $9,324 — a sum that only about one in six families can afford, according to the Economic Policy Institute. 

So what about the other five in six families?

A new program

This week, Harris County launched an application portal for families to apply for Early REACH, which will provide 800 to 1,000 free day care seats between now and 2025. Funded by $26 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds, the program is a collaboration between Harris County, BakerRipley and the United Way of Greater Houston. 

There are some eligibility requirements: families must live in Harris County; have children between the ages of 0 and 4; and demonstrate a financial need by earning less than $75,468 a year for a family of four, living in a high-need area, receiving federal benefits, raising a foster child or experiencing homelessness. Many barriers have been removed. For instance, you don’t need to prove citizenship, just proof of your child’s age through a doctor’s note or some other document. 

While this will undoubtedly open up access for hundreds of families, there’s one big catch: Not enough people seem to know about it. 

Markayla visited North Channel Library earlier this month by chance, not because she’d heard of the county’s outreach presentation scheduled for a small room just inside the library door. In fact, not a single parent attended that session. 

After the county officials finished their slideshow presentation, I watched as one woman wandered into the library’s children’s room and began speaking to parents. There, she found Markayla, filling out a form for a library card. She told Markayla all about the program, leaving her with the information she’d need to enroll at as soon as June 12. 

It was fortuitous timing for Markayla, who needs day care spots for Kaymen and Mason. But think about all of the people who weren’t in the right place at the right time that afternoon. There are thousands of Markaylas across the region. And that number is only growing. 

Irene Chaires, an Early REACH representative, at right, speaks with a woman about child care programming and the application process June 6 at Harris County’s North Channel Branch Library. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

Increasing need

Harris County is in a post-pandemic baby boom. That became clear to me in February 2022, when — after being told there was not enough labor-and-delivery bed space for my scheduled, post-due date induction — I finally gave birth to my daughter. During my stay at the Texas Medical Center, I met several nurses and doctors who told me the past several weeks had been the busiest labor and delivery window in their entire careers. 

Much of the nation is experiencing a natural decrease in population, as deaths outnumber births in 74.4 percent of American counties. Not so here. Harris County recorded 30,117 more births than deaths in 2022, a larger natural increase than any of the 3,142 counties in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

As Harris County continues to grow, the disconnect between day care supply and demand will only increase. So what can we do?

Well, unless you’re a day care operator who can apply to offer subsidized seats through the program (which, if you are, please do), it’s likely that the best you can do is let people know about Early REACH. The slots are opening on a rolling basis, which means while applications opened this month, the seats will come online between now and next June. 

Tell anyone you think might be in need that they can find all the information at; that the program won’t cost them a thing; and that they do not need to prove citizenship to find a spot. Then tell them why it matters: Families with access to day care earn more money, which means they have better access to food and education for those children. The children themselves have better health on average, as well as less contact with the criminal justice system and higher graduation rates. 

Then there are the benefits for working mothers, who are often the parent who has to set aside their workplace ambitions when child care isn’t available, at great personal cost. Day care enables and empowers women to work toward our own goals — personal and professional — in chunks of time greater than one can buy with an early morning cup of coffee at Starbucks. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...