In the Search for Affordable Child Care, Location is Everything

By Gillian B. White

The fact that childcare is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so, is nothing new. For years, families have been confronted with high-priced childcare that sometimes leads to one spouse stepping away from the workforce, reasoning that the cost would have matched, or exceeded their annual salary. But what might be surprising are the vast differences in exactly how burdensome childcare is from state-to-state.

According to a 2014 study by Child Care Aware of America, an organization that advocates for policies and resources that support high-quality childcare, the average price of center-based, infant childcare in the state of New York cost about 15.9 percent of the median, annual state income for a married couple.  In Louisiana, the same service costs only about 6.9 percent of the annual median income for a married couple. The burden of childcare prices becomes much more acute when looking at single-parent households: The average cost of daycare for an infant would cost a median-income, single mom in D.C. 83 percent of her salary, while in South Dakota it would cost her less than 25 percent of her annual salary, the study found.

So what exactly is behind the difference in costliness? There are lots of variables: Wages and cost of living are of course part of the equation. In places with higher-earners, or in states where things like rent or food costs less, the burden of childcare is likely to be somewhat reduced. Regulations and licensing requirements for childcare centers play a part too, making it pricier to run a childcare business in some states than others, explains Abbe Kovacik, executive director of the Capital District Child Care Council in New York. But the reasons behind the discrepancies offer little consolation to low-income families who have a difficult time scraping together funds for childcare, or who wind up leaving their children in less-than-optimal arrangements in order to go to work.  

Felicia Chandler, a mother of five-month-old twins in Schenectady, New York is left to decide between the childcare that she wants and the childcare she can afford—a common issue for many low-income, working families. Though Chandler and her husband both work full-time and qualify for a subsidy funded through the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, she says that they have yet to receive any assistance, though she applied during the summer of 2014. A representative from the Workforce Development Institute, which administers the subsidy program, confirms that Chandler’s name is on the list, but has not yet been chosen. The representative mentioned that another woman, who she called recently to offer a subsidy, was on the list for over a year before receiving assistance.  

That means that when Chandler and her husband head to work, they’re forced to leave their children with the only childcare option they can afford. Currently, Chandler relies on her sister-in-law’s best friend. “She’s not certified, she’s not experienced, and she calls out a lot and we have to miss work. We have to keep her because she’s really cheap,” she says. “I want good childcare, I just can’t afford the high price.”

Chandler says that her current caretaker costs about $500 per month, but most center-based daycares she’s looked at required about twice that amount. With take-home pay of about $1,300 each month, she can’t afford it. “I’d be working for free,” Chandler says, noting that she’d be left with only a few hundred dollars each month to help with other household expenses. Though her husband works too, she says they can’t get by on only one salary. “I’m not saying it’s bad to stay home with your kids, I wish I could, but I can’t afford to.”

According to Child Care Aware America, about 11 million children under the age of 5 require childcare, and on average, these children spend about 36 hours a week with their caretakers. And that can be incredibly costly. According to a study from the Center for Family and Policy Research at the University of Missouri, in 2013 the cost of childcare grew up to eight times as fast as family income.

The cost of high-priced childcare affects not only families, but employers too. Issues of failed childcare that require parents to interrupt their work schedules, like an absent babysitter, cost businesses an estimated $3 billion annually, the study from University of Missouri says.

One of the biggest problems Chandler has with her current childcare arrangement is the lack of reliability. She says that her babysitter often has emergencies that cause her to skip work, requiring Chandler or her husband to stay home from their own jobs. “It leaves us in a terrible work situation,” she says.

When it comes to the availability of subsidies that would help low-income families afford high-quality childcare, there is also lot of variability from state-to-state, says to Hannah Matthews, the director of child care and early education at CLASP, an organization that advocates for policies that help low-income families. “Who gets help depends very often on where you live,” she said. “The overall trend is one of much less help available for families.

In fact, when you look at families that are receiving childcare subsidies across the nation, the current number of children being served by the Child Care and Development Block Grant—the primary source of childcare subsidies for low-income families—is at it’s lowest level since 1998, according to CLASP data. And total federal spending on childcare assistance, which includes funds from Temporary Aid for Needy Families, is at its lowest level since 2002.

When it comes to  subsidies for childcare, states have a lot more leeway in creating guidelines for receiving assistance than they do in other aid areas, says Matthews. Unlike SNAP or Medicaid, where eligibility and subsequent aid is laid out in very specific terms, “in childcare, states really make a lot of the rules,” she says.

There have been modest improvements in the level of funding for childcare assistance lately, but they’re not enough to bridge the gap between the need that exists and the funds that are available, according to the National Women’s Law Center.  A potential bright spot is the newly-reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant, which would help more families get, and keep, childcare assistance says, Matthews. But the program is an expensive one and would require additional investment at both the state and federal level in order to provide enough funding for the grants to create much needed improvements in childcare aid for needy families.

For people like Felicia Chandler, that means that though she qualifies for aid, she might not get it any time soon due to freezes in spending, lack of funds or changes to how subsidies are doled out within the state. Families like Chandler’s will be left scrounging for daily care. Some utilize a combination of friends, part-time babysitters and their own leave days to create a day-to-day childcare system. Others have to rely on untrained or unreliable caregivers. The lack of assistance makes Chandler mad, “They’re not helping people who are out there working and trying to earn a respectable living,” she says. “You have to take what you have and not complain because you don’t have the money to go elsewhere.”

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