Child Care's Sky High Price

Child Care's Sky High Price

Why you should care

Because with all the talk about college costs — for which there are scholarships and loans — the soaring price of child care is just as bad, and there’s less relief available.

Since the collapse of the economy in 2008, many families’ finances have only worsened, and one of the biggest challenges parents face is how to afford child care. Put aside, for a moment, the scramble to find someone to watch an infant or a toddler. Don’t even think about the eventual cost of putting a kid through college (another OZY piece already went there). Let’s just look at the numbers.

Professor Mildred Warner at Cornell University, who studies the economic impact of child care on American families and communities, notes that many dual-income parents pay the equivalent of a second mortgage each month for basic child care.

24 percent

Portion of take-home pay an average dual-earning couple pays for child care.

As a nonprofit national advocacy organization, Child Care Aware of America issues annual reports on the cost of child care in the United States. It found that Massachusetts had the highest average child care costs and Mississippi had the lowest. For each state, the cost of day care nearly equaled — or even surpassed — the cost of tuition and fees at one of its public universities. We’re not talking Harvard, but neither are many studies that look at the rising cost of college tuition in the country.

Let’s say a college student chooses to live at home, so there are no room-and-board costs to pay the provider — just like for a toddler.

$11,732

Cost of tuition and fees at The University of Massachusettes, Amherst, for the 2010-11 school year

$15,000

Average cost of full-time infant care in Massachusetts, according to CCAA, for 2011

$5,461

Cost of tuition and fees at Mississippi State University for the 2010–11 school year

$4,600

Average cost of full-time infant care in Mississippi, according to CCAA, for 2011

Parents struggling to pay for college have a few aces that parents of toddlers don’t. Even college students who don’t qualify for financial assistant can still work, earn academic scholarships, or take out loans to contribute to the cost of higher education. An 18-month-old is considered borderline genius if he can put on his own pants.

Myriad reasons explain why the cost is so high, but two of them are easily quantifiable. The younger the child, the more space and staff a center is legally mandated to supply.

1:3, 2:7

Staff-to-child ratio in Massachusetts for children under 1 year of age. So, tuition from three families must cover one staffer, or seven families for two staffers, but the staffers can watch no more than seven kids in one space.

1:10

Staff-to-child ratio in Massachusetts for 3-year-olds

1:5

Staff-to-child ratio in Mississippi for children under 1 year of age

1:14

Staff-to-child ratio in Mississippi for 3-year-olds

40 square feet

Amount of space required per child, in both states, for infants, not including common areas such as a hallway or kitchen

35 square feet

Amount of space required per child, in each state, for 3-year-olds, not including common areas such as a hallway or kitchen

Additional requirements vary by state. In New York City, for example, day care centers cannot be above the third floor. That limits the centers to what’s often prime, expensive real estate, and a large swath of commercial space throughout the skyscraper-laden city is ruled out.

One simple answer, of course, is not to have children — or to have only one child. After all, the CCAA notes that the average family will pay more than their rent for child care for two kids under kindergarten age. One mother, an attorney for a federal government agency in Washington, D.C., takes home just 50 cents per pay period after she pays for child care and preschool for her two children.

Where will this take us? As a society, American parents struggle to raise kids and remain employed — and U.S. employers are taking note of the talent drain and trying to find solutions, says Warner. She calls America’s child care burden “a broken, underresourced system.”

“Other advanced industrialized countries do not treat children and families this way,” Warner says. “They recognize the critical importance of child care and provide more public support — two to six times more than in the U.S.”

Isn’t it time the U.S. tried to catch up?

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