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.