The Child-Care Crisis

We all want to leave our kids in capable hands when we go to work, but finding—and affording—good care is a burden that families shouldn't have to shoulder alone.
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Illustration by Caroline Hwang

"Show and Share" is the highlight of Graham Stutts's week, but it's hard to say whether the 4-year-old is more excited about showing his triceratops to his buddies or wearing his pj's on Pajama Day. He's been attending the Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Care Center, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, since he was a baby, and his 8-month-old brother, Johnny, joined him there this summer. "We've had the most amazing teachers, who really pick up on what each child needs," says his mom, Elese. That's why she burst into tears when she found out the center is scheduled to close next year. "There's nothing more important to a working parent than knowing her kid is in a good child-care situation," Stutts says.

The center is run by The University of North Carolina's FPG Child Development Institute, where researchers have spent 40-plus years studying early childhood. Because the monthly fee paid by parents, which ranges from $1,000 to $1,520 per child, depending on age and family income, doesn't cover the cost of operating and staffing the program, the institute has had to subsidize up to a third of it. But due to state and other budget cuts, that's no longer possible.

This sad situation highlights a long-standing problem: Good child care often costs more than families can afford. In a recent survey of Parents readers who use child care, 84 percent said that finding affordable, quality care is either a challenge, very hard, or impossible. And our survey with the Too Small to Fail Campaign found that 66 percent of parents think the lack of access to child care is a serious problem. Particularly in this economy, parents face tough choices.

Having a full-time stay-at-home parent simply isn't a reality for most families anymore. Among married couples, only about 23 percent of moms and 3 percent of dads stay home full-time with their kids, according to the latest U.S. Census data. As a result, nearly 11 million children under age 5 are in some type of child care each week. Roughly 40 percent of those are in the charge of grandparents, other relatives, or friends. Experts include babysitters in this group of informal caregivers because they aren't regulated, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're inexpensive. Another 30 percent of children attend a child-care center, Head Start, or preschool, and 15 percent go to a family home day care.

None of us wants to settle for someone who will simply "watch" our kids, especially given what we know about the amount of brain development and learning that occurs in the earliest years. Indeed, experts now talk about "early child care and education" as one concept. "It's important to have loving caregivers who know how to organize the day so that the children are engaged and excited to be there," says Parents advisor Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a researcher with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's long-term study of child care.

Most parents would probably be shocked to realize that there are no federal standards for quality and safety in child care, only a hodgepodge of inconsistent state laws. Fortunately, government leaders are realizing that changes are needed, but given current budget pressures, the major problems in the child-care system can't be solved overnight. "Many other countries have figured out this challenge, and we need to figure it out too," says Dr. McCartney.

Footing the Bill

The cost of child care has increased twice as fast as the median income of families since 2000, according to Child Care Aware of America (formerly the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies). Average annual fees for center-based care range from $3,900 in Mississippi to $15,000 in Massachusetts, depending on a child's age (infant care is more expensive). Of course, some areas are even pricier. When Karie Arndt discovered that the cheapest day care near her home in Roseville, California, was going to cost $2,100 a month, she didn't know how she and her husband would manage. Luckily, her mother, who lives 22 miles away, agreed to retire early to care for Jennifer, now 5. Still, the "free" care costs the couple $800 in monthly gasoline bills and adds an extra two hours to Arndt's daily commute.

"It's a crisis for families with young children," says Richard M. Clifford, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute. "The cost of quality child care is in the range of what you'd pay for college." For families with two kids in child care, the cost usually doubles, so you can expect to shell out more than the average rent payment in your state.

Even when couples need two incomes, it may not be worth it for both partners to work. After Nancy Whitfield had her first child, she quit her job because she was earning only $40 more per week than the cost of day care. "We decided I might as well stay at home and try to make ends meet," says Whitfield, of Savannah, Texas, whose kids are now 5 and almost 3. "We have no savings and stick to a strict budget. I love being with my girls, but I miss that paycheck."

Certainly, the pressures are even greater on single-parent families, and the situation is harder still for low-income households. The Federal government gives about $10 billion per year to states to subsidize care for low-income families through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), but only one out of six kids who qualify for assistance receives it and many states have long waiting lists for vouchers. The U.S. ranks below most developed nations in terms of spending for early-childhood programs and, unfortunately, funding for child care has never been a national priority.

Peace of Mind

As much as the cost of care varies, so does the quality. According to Child Care Aware of America, which scores each state on a detailed set of criteria every two years, most states earned a failing grade in the most recent report. For example, 16 states don't require lead teachers in centers to have a high-school diploma, and only 21 states insist that caregivers have any child-development training. In California, centers are inspected only once every five years. In South Dakota, a home day care can have a dozen children and not need a license. Centers have to be licensed in all states, but some states exempt those in churches or other religious buildings from any oversight.

The ratio of adults to children is important (experts recommend at least one adult for every four babies or ten preschoolers), but sheer numbers aren't the key to quality. "Kids need to be in an environment that supports all aspects of their development—social, emotional, intellectual, and physical," says Dr. McCartney. Even something as simple as whether a caregiver responds to a babbling baby can have a profound impact on his language skills. The facility matters too—children need space to play and explore.

Despite their crucial role, child-care workers earn little respect and their median paycheck is about $21,000 a year. "You can have an amazing staff member who is a natural with kids, but she has to quit because she can't afford to pay her bills on her salary," says Donna Denette, executive director of Children First, a child-care center in Granby, Massachusetts. Staff turnover is hard on young children, who become attached to their caregivers.

Experts are increasingly concerned about health and safety issues. It's important for staff to be trained in first aid, CPR, safe-sleeping practices, and child-abuse prevention. Centers should be regularly inspected (after all, dog-grooming salons and restaurants are). Only eight states require that caregivers in licensed centers and family child-care homes have a comprehensive background check, including a fingerprint check against state and FBI records, and a check of sex-offender and child-abuse registries. In North Carolina, for example, more than 450 people who applied for jobs at child-care programs last year were turned down because they were found to have a criminal record or a history of child abuse. Some states, such as Kansas and Texas, have enacted stricter safety regulations only after tragic incidents in which a child died.

Prioritizing Solutions

For years, advocates have been calling for reforms to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which hasn't been updated since 1996) to establish higher standards that states must follow in order to receive federal funding for child care. There is now a bipartisan effort in the Senate, led by Democrat Barbara Mikulski (MD) and Republican Richard Burr (NC), to reauthorize the legislation. Although more money for child-care subsidies is certainly needed, given the current budget constraints the senators are now focusing on lower-cost ways to improve care overall "It is absolutely crucial that we make a national commitment that safe and quality child care is available everywhere," Senator Burr said at a subcommittee hearing in July.

Such improvements are also the idea behind the federally funded Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which awarded $500 million dollars to nine states last December. The states will use the money, which will be given over four years, to fund their winning plans to improve early-learning programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Five runners-up are expected to share an additional $133 million.

It's not that we don't know how to provide high-quality, affordable care in this country. The Federal government already runs an enviable child-care system for military families. In 1989, Congress passed the Military Child Care Act, which required strict standards and oversight for all centers and day-care homes. Parents pay only a portion of the program's actual cost. However, none of the same requirements for civilian child care were included in CCDBG, which was originally enacted the following year.

Even given the current federal deficit, experts believe that spending more on child care is worth it. Research from Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, Ph.D., at the University of Chicago, for example, found that the return on investment can be as high as $16 for every dollar that goes into high-quality early-childhood programs, because kids in good care have less need of special education and public assistance, and are less likely to commit crimes.

There is limited financial help available for middle-income families, who can't qualify for state or federal assistance. Under the current law, the Dependent Care Tax Credit offsets a tiny fraction of the fees parents pay. As part of his Fiscal Year 2013 budget, President Obama proposed to increase the amount next year to 35 percent of qualified expenses, up to $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children in families making less than $75,000 per year. Parents may also be able to take advantage of Dependent Care Accounts offered by their employers, which allow them to put aside up to $5,000 pretax.

Clearly, there's no cheap, easy solution, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak up about the importance of the issue. "Imagine if all the child-care centers closed for a week. Everything would come to a screeching halt," says Denette. "But you don't hear people talking about us as if we're critical to the functioning of society."

We can expect to pay a high price if we pitch in to help cover the cost of better care for all—but an even higher price if we don't. "We have decided as a country to invest in other things that aren't giving us the same bang for the buck that early education will," says Dr. McCartney. "As a developmental psychologist, I care most about children's early learning and social development, but, ultimately, the crisis in child care is also going to affect our global competitiveness."

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Next: Get Involved!

Get Involved!

Parents is partnering with Child Care Aware of America on a letter-writing campaign to advocate for new standards that will protect children at child-care centers and in family day-care homes.

  • Comprehensive background checks for all caregivers
  • At least 40 hours of initial training and 24 hours of annual training for caregivers in health/safety and child development
  • At least one unannounced inspection per year
  • Required state license for all centers and day-care homes of any size
  • Results of inspections and violations posted online Quality rating systems for centers and homes in every state
  • An increase in the percentage of federal funds reserved for quality improvement to at least 12 percent

Click the link below to send a letter to your members of Congress and let them know that you support these priorities as part of the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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