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.

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.

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