The cost of child care in the United States is expensive. For everyone. The Care Index found that the average cost of center-based care in the United States is one-fifth of the median household income, and infant care costs more than college in 33 states. For a parent making minimum wage, the average cost of care would take up an unsustainable two-thirds of their earnings, with little left over for rent or mortgage payments, food, transportation, clothing, and other basic necessities.
And there are real economic consequences—for families, communities, and the economy—when the burden of shouldering that high price tag falls disproportionately on families. And it does. Research has found that parents pick up 60 percent of the cost of child care; federal, state and local governments shoulder 39 percent; and businesses and philanthropy contribute just 1 percent.
When parents can’t find affordable, quality child care, their only alternatives are to cut back on work hours, seek alternative work arrangements, look for care on the unregulated, cheaper “gray market,” rely on an informal network of families, friends, and neighbors, or even exit the labor market completely to take on child care responsibilities themselves. This move is not without consequences: Parents who exit the labor market could be losing more than three times their annual salary every year they are not working due to the opportunity cost of wage growth and retirement savings, according to a Center for American Progress report. Dropping out of the workforce, however, is not an option for working single parents, who must seek informal care or a limited number of government subsidies to pay for licensed care in order to support their families and continue working.
Women are the ones who typically have faced these trade-offs between work and care, both because they generally earn less than men, and because prevailing cultural norms still expect mothers to take on primary responsibility for caregiving. Women around the world do 75 percent of the unpaid work of housework and child care. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that that invisible work, if given market value, would equal at least 13 percent of the global GDP. Further, they estimated that creating conditions and policies to better recognize and more fairly redistribute this unpaid labor and create more parity for women in the paid labor force, could add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. And $2.1 trillion in the United States alone.