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The Dismal State of Child Care

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

In September, the Better Life Lab at New America released The New America Care Report examining the cost, quality, and availability of child care across the United States. The information contained in the report is critical and eye-opening but also dispiriting in that it exposes the many holes and failures in this country’s child care system. There can be a mythology surrounding child care that it might be broken for the poor but everyone else manages to get by. As a reasonably successful, college-educated mother of three this has certainly not been my experience. My trajectory through the child care landscape echoes many of the findings of the report, most importantly that this child care system we have in place really isn’t working for anyone.

I am a single mother with a six-figure student loan debt and two heavily laden credit cards, much of that taken on to pay for my children’s early education. Unless something changes, I most likely won’t be able to help my children with college because I will still be paying off their pre-school. In a child care landscape characterized by high costs, limited government subsidies, a low level (11 percent) of nationally accredited establishments, and frequent difficulty in finding age appropriate care, mine is just one of many families whose financial lives have been permanently altered in a quest to find quality affordable care for our young children.

When my oldest was born I was working as a freelance writer. I lived in Seattle at the time and Washington State had child care subsidies for working parents. Qualification entailed a lot of paperwork—bank statements, eligibility forms, pay stubs—and several visits to the local DHS office. The system was not conducive to anyone working irregular hours or for more than one employer. But eventually I was able to send my son and then a year later my daughter to a high quality local child care center for between $50 and $300 a month.

Things changed when I decided to go back to school less than a year after my daughter was born. I wanted a profession more reliable than freelancing so I knew I would be able to provide for my children in the future. By mutual agreement their father wasn’t in the picture financially, so for my first year of law school I continued to work so I could hold onto that subsidy. I took assignments as a journalist while carrying a full course load and caring for two toddlers. It wasn’t easy, but I don’t think it was especially remarkable either. I’ve spoken to many, many families who make extensive sacrifices in terms of time, money, and quality of life in the search for affordable high quality child care.

The summer before my second year of school, when I tried to re-qualify for the subsidy I was denied. Budget cuts were slicing away at social services and assistance was no longer available to people who worked at home. Or to students.

Child care subsidies, such as those funded through the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant, are typically administered at the state level. They usually provide vouchers that serve as payment to pre-qualified providers, who take big losses on each subsidized child since the state-set reimbursement rates do not cover the actual cost to the provider of caring for the child. Income eligibility levels vary by state but are consistently low, meaning many struggling families remain closed out. A 2015 study by the National Women’s Law Center found that a family with an income above 150 percent of the federal poverty level—or $30,135 for a family of three—could not qualify for assistance in seventeen states. There is so little money invested in existing federal subsidies that they only cover one in six eligible children. Funds come and go with state budget adjustments and the review process can be so long and stressful that I actually felt less anxious about child care when I was paying for it on my own.

After the panic subsided, I called my school’s financial aid office. They told me about childcare subsidies available through the university. The subsidies only covered about a third of the cost, but I was lucky they existed at all. Child care is a major hurdle for most student parents. There are about 4.8 million college students who are also parents. But less than half of 4-year or community colleges provide any on-campus child care and many of those slots are taken up by the children of faculty. If student parents are eligible for subsidies—which they rarely are—state subsidy programs cover only a narrow subset. Some states, like Georgia, offer subsidies only to students in community college or technical school but not in four-year colleges or universities.

I was also lucky in that I found a daycare just blocks from the university. As noted in the Care Report, availability is a huge and often difficult to quantify aspect of the child care puzzle. In urban areas, child care centers can fill early and have long waitlists. In rural areas, the closest available care might be many miles away. The inability to find age-appropriate care nearby when it’s needed further heightens the time and money a family must invest.

There was one catch with my new facility: they didn’t provide infant care. When our subsidy was denied I was six months pregnant with my third child, so when he was two days old he started law school with me and attended through the quarter. He was waitlisted at a facility about 15 minutes from our home and a slot opened up when he was twelve weeks old. I wasn’t ready to let him go five days just yet but there was no guarantee space would be available when I needed it. So, from April until late June, I paid for full-time care, though he only attended two days a week.  That year my child care expenses rang in at just under $45,000.

Let me break here to explain one thing. I have always worked, even while I was in school. I went back to school to hitch myself high enough into the middle class to support my children. I am a single mother but I am also a white collar professional – there are plenty of two-parent families out there whose combined income is equal to or less than mine. I am today’s middle class. So the easiest response might be to write me off as soon as you heard about that third baby. “Don’t have children if you can’t afford them.” We need to look beyond that. The answer to our child care problem can’t be that only rich people get to have kids.

According to the Care Report, the average cost of child care in the U.S. is shocking—higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition, and one-fifth of the median household income. Families shoulder 60 percent of these costs, with the government picking up 39 percent and business and philanthropy just 1 percent. The financial repercussions for families can be devastating. I finished school with debt ranging into six figures. Children’s birthdays came and went with few gifts and no parties, friends brought bags of groceries I wished I could have turned away but didn’t.

I had been offered a job in Washington DC, so after I graduated from law school we prepared to head across country. In my search for accredited daycare I found exactly one that had space for my three-year-old daughter but they could not take my son, who was almost two. I finally was referred to a newly opened center, about 20 minutes from our apartment. The cost was astronomical—close to $2500 a month—but he would be safe and well-cared for. The two daycares plus before and after school care for my kindergartner consumed over half my take-home salary. The tally for child care for that next year: over $40,000.

To get by, we ate oatmeal packets from Costco and showed up at birthday parties with no gifts. I deferred my student loans, and maxed out my credit cards. My generous mother, who was in the process of selling her home and downsizing, pulled us off the financial precipice a few times.

I’m sharing my story not because it’s unique or unusual, but because it’s not. There are 12 million children under the age of five in this country who require child care. That means tens of thousands of families doing what I do: cobbling together arrangements, seeping into debt, praying like hell that their children get the right groundwork in place because education is the key to everything. These days, my two oldest are in school, where I pay almost $1,000 a month for before and after-care. With only one child in full-time care, my child care expenses are still more than I pay in rent.   

I’m sharing this to remind legislators and policy makers that we need help. Most of all, I’m sharing to encourage other families to speak out. Because statistics are important, but the people with the power to change things need to understand, from those who live it, how debilitating the state of child care in America has become.


Nan Mooney is a journalist and writer with an emphasis on work-family and socioeconomic issues.