Many parents know this already: child care is expensive. Very expensive.
A new study from the Economic Policy Institute found that child care, on average, now costs more than rent in most American cities.
In Pennsylvania, which is roughly middle-of-the-road for costs, one year of child care for an infant is $10,319. For a toddler, it’s $8,601, and for a school-aged child, it’s $5,520. Keep in mind that’s the average cost per child.
Urban areas are hit hardest, but families everywhere are feeling the pain and paying an average of 21 percent of their annual income for child care.
Given our country’s continued obsession with “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps” and “getting to work,” you’d think that we would want to make that “getting to work” part just a little bit easier. Particularly for women, who are still most often the stay-at-home parent. As of a recent Pew Research Center report, nearly 30 percent of moms stay home to avoid child care costs, up from 23 percent in 1999.
This move back to stay-at-home-parenting would be absolutely fine, if it were a choice. As these statistics show, however, mothers stay home not because they are lucky enough to have the option but because they don’t have an option at all. The expense of child care eats at their income until work becomes a hamster wheel: mothers work in order to pay for child care in order to work … in order to pay for child care. And so on.
Add to this that in many households, that second income — or for single parents, that sole income — is sorely needed, and you have a crisis point. It’s a problem we must address, not just for the sake of working parents but our economy as a whole. After all, this isn’t just a “woman’s issue,” even though it is often portrayed that way.
So, what is the cause of these ballooning costs? What are the solutions?
This does not seem to be a case of capitalism at work — of simple supply and demand. Sure, the demand is high. And in places like Washington, D.C., which has a high number of white-collar workers and skyrocketing child care costs, averaging $21,948 a year per infant, there seems to be some evidence that cost rises in step with demand.
But then why aren’t child care centers raking in the dough, as all good high-demand services should? In fact, wages for child care workers have gone down, not up. Average hourly wages are $9.74, just a touch above minimum wage, or $20,270 a year. Even the top 10 percent of child care workers make just $30,080 a year. It’s not as if we have a flood of child care millionaires; those salaries barely crack the middle class.
What about regulation? Some argue that the strict requirements for number of staff, square footage for facilities and other regulations are making it more expensive than ever to operate a daycare. There is, in fact, some truth to that.
For example, Pennsylvania mandates that there must be one staff member for every four infants and one for every five toddlers. So, doing some quick math, those four to five children must cover a $20,000-a-year average salary. That means $5,000 per kid just to cover one worker’s far-from-outrageous salary, and that doesn’t include the overhead, like the facility, the diapers, the snacks, the utilities and so on.
If regulation is the issue, however, are we willing to walk back the requirements meant to protect kids? Imagine taking care of more than four infants at one time! Even the most skilled professional would struggle to spread their attention fairly among that many kids.
What about other solutions?
President Obama called for a $3,000-a-year tax credit for child care in his State of the Union speech in January, which could help — at least temporarily.
For low-income residents in Fayette County, there is the Child Care Works Subsidized Childcare Program. Through this program, some parents can get a subsidy payment to go toward child care costs. They pay a co-pay to make up the difference, much like the Obamacare subsidy for health insurance. The income ceiling for this program is $31,860 for a family of two (like a single mother, for example) and $48,500 for a family of four.
Neither is absolutely ideal, but they help lessen the burden for some. In the meantime, we must keep this issue in mind and remember that this affects everyone, not just women, working women or families.
Jessica Vozel is originally from Perryopolis and, after attending graduate school and teaching in Ohio, now works as a freelance journalist and copywriter in the Pittsburgh area.