The “Child Care Dance” and why we need reform
Post by Chloe Sasson
“We thought we were doing everything right,” said Jenny, a young mom and Fair Share supporter. “We thought we were so ahead of things, we had even started a college fund, but … no one told us what we needed was a child care savings fund!”
Few things compare to the joy of seeing your kid learn, grow and succeed. And few things compare to the amount of work and sacrifice of parenting young children.
And while young parents like Jenny try to prepare for parenthood, the challenges of arranging and paying for trustworthy child care (which averages nearly a fifth of household income) poses an extra challenge.
According to the last U.S. census, Massachusetts has roughly 225,000 preschool-aged children, only 59% of which are enrolled in an early education program. And it isn’t as though the other 41% of families want to keep their children from getting this critical early learning. For many, it’s just too expensive.
For the 69% of families with two working parents and children under 6, child care is a must. However, as Eric Morath of the Wall Street Journal notes, “as jobs have become more plentiful, demand for child care has increased—pushing up its cost and partially offsetting income gains.” 19 out of 25 parent participants in a Massachusetts Fair Share survey name affordability as the one thing they would change within the child care system.
For parents weighing their main options – staying home, trying to line up informal care, or finding professional care – here are some of the factors that go into those decisions.
Many parents face the tricky decision whether to stay at home or return to work after having a baby. In Massachusetts, every parent is entitled to at least eight weeks per child in family leave. Additional eligibility can earn parents a minimum of 12 work weeks off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Whether or not a one is paid during this period varies based on employer.
Once this leave is over, transitioning from providing direct care for your infant to finding outside coverage when returning to work can be hard. With infant care expenses eating up nearly 20% of the median family’s income, staying home and avoiding those costs is tempting.
However, getting by on one income can pose a significant challenge. One parent reports that even scaling back to part-time employment is “unfeasible,” stating, “We have to be a two income household, and suspect many are in the same boat.”
What stay-at-home parents save in child care and other work-related expenses in the short-term, may lead to difficulty down the line in relation to retirement and insurance. Plus, reentering the workforce after a being at home for several years is not easy. Gaps on résumés may be red flags for employers and hurt chances of being hired.
Research has shown that, “leaving the workforce, even for less than a year, can have long-term negative consequences [on] careers and lifetime earnings.” Given that women are 4.5 times more likely than men to take prolonged time off to care for children, parent care contributes to the wage gap.
A myriad of online “stay at home” calculators can help provide financial guidance to parents given their current income and expenses. Those that cannot afford to stop working, or choose not to for other reasons, must then consider informal and professional child care options.
Many families opt for care offered by grandparents, relatives, neighbors, and/or friends. However, it’s often difficult to find capable care-givers who are available enough to actually cover needs. Au pairs and full-time nannies, although potentially pricey, are another informal alternative to parent and professional care.
Given that close to 70% of children under six have two working parents yet only 59% are enrolled in a child care program, we see a 10% gap that must be accounted for through full-time informal care. However, the numbers of parents taking advantage of part-time informal aid is of course much higher. Informal care is often used to supplement other child care methods to provide affordability and flexibility in a family’s child care situation.
Professional child care centers definitely have their advantages. They are consistent, credentialed, and, because they must be licensed by the state, abide by thorough safety regulations. Parents looking to socialize their children at a young age prefer these types of care centers. One father notes that, “Many parents, myself included, want our children to have rich peer relationships—we want our children to interact with other kids, learn how to socialize, and make friends.” These settings expose children to the diversity in background and values that facilitate their transition into kindergarten.
Child care centers. Traditional center-based child care and preschools are the most popular choice for parents. 68% of survey participants report enrolling their child in a child care center. But all the advantages of center-based care come at a steep price. With infant care costing a whopping $17,062 per year on average and preschool-aged care costing about $12,781 per year, Massachusetts has the second most expensive child care system in the United States, exceeded only by Washington DC.
Parents face the challenge of “finding a place that is of good quality and also affordable,” claiming such centers are “extremely hard to come by”. Survey respondents expressed their frustration at the high cost of preschool and daycare, arguing that “It costs as much as our mortgage” and “Most of the places I would want to send my children I cannot afford”.
Family child care. Finding licensed professionals who provide care directly out of their homes is typically a more affordable alternative to care centers. However, these in-home programs, costing a little over $10,000 per year on average, are often capped at just six children and thus fill up very quickly. Finding a family child care provider with available openings and a location that works can be challenging. Because these homes tend not to be centrally located, transportation can be an issue, especially for parents without a car. We’re looking into programs to help with transportation needs to ensure that family care can be a viable option for parents.
Head Start programs. Families living below the poverty line or relying on public assistance have the option of pursuing Head Start. Started as part of the War on Poverty in the 1965, this national program is mostly known for its free, holistic preschool programs for children ages 3-5. Early Head Start is a support program for pregnant women and children ages 0-3.
Despite being a great resource for many young parents, Head Start cannot possibly serve all eligible children due to limited space. Head Start also fails to benefit those who make too much to qualify for public assistance, yet still cannot afford child care.
Vouchers. Another option for low-income families is the “voucher”—a private preschool or daycare subsidy provided by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and administered by the state. This subsidy can be used for any licensed child care provider, either center or family child care.
The voucher is distributed through a lottery system. Because of the voucher’s long waitlists and low reimbursement rates, child care remains inaccessible for many families. Unfortunately for the 32% of Massachusetts children under six years who qualify as low-income, the “current funding level for the Child Care and Development Block Grant provides assistance to only one out of 10 eligible children”. Like Head Start, parents frequently find themselves earning “too much for vouchers, but not enough to afford [preschool] all the time”.
It’s time for a system that works for parents and teachers
Navigating the tricky waters of child care, especially for new parents, can be quite challenging. In order make child care attainable, we need to ensure that quality early education is both affordable and accessible for every family. Because low wages for educators endanger learning quality by creating a 30% industry turnover rate, funding a teacher rate reserve is a key place to begin. Early education cannot expand if the workforce is in crisis.
Another solution would be to issue a cap on child care expenses. One report states that “meaningful child care reform that capped families’ child care expenses at 10% of their income would expand Massachusetts’s economy by 1.6%. That’s $7.07 billion of new economic activity.” Massachusetts congresswoman Clark recently proposed the 21st Century Child Care Investment Act, which would provide tax credits keeping expenses at 10%, improve quality, and increase educator salary. With this plan, the median Massachusetts family with an infant would save roughly $8,300 annually.
Parents need to speak up about the growing child care problem in order to achieve real progress. Until Massachusetts makes necessary changes to its child care system, parents are left to haphazardly piece together parental, informal, and professional care plans just to get by.