How Day Care Costs Are Killing America’s Family Budgets

Paying for child care is like a bankrupting dress rehearsal for college.

Generic image of teacher with preschool children 
Generic image of teacher with preschool children  Thinkstock

You’d think that, as stressed out as parents are over child care, the exorbitant cost might be one of those things Congress jumps all over.

But even after an encouraging head nod from President Obama in his State of the Union two weeks ago, legislators are back to business as usual, tripping over campaign donor and lobbyist favorites like tax reform and the Keystone XL pipeline.

Part of the problem: A lot of baby-boomer-age white male policymakers aren’t prioritizing it. And, unlike many other hot topics, child care isn’t polling. That’s slowly changing, though. But a confluence of willful politician ignorance, a focus on corporate agendas and our tough-it-out, good, old-fashioned American indifference mutes any national outrage. 

The most recent big child care poll was a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital national survey tapping into parental opinion on whether day care providers should keep kid vaccinations updated. But what about the more pressing question: How much is parasitic day care pricing eating away at your family budget and peace of mind?

POTUS was spot on for bringing it up—even if it was a clever pre-2016 Democratic play for lost white female voters. But let’s stop acting cute about this, as if we’ve got Kanye-and-Kim-size wallets. Most parents, especially underserved parents of color, know how damn high the child care is. Clearly, it’s a crisis: On average, 63 percent of families are spending nearly $12,000 a year on day care, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. And whether your child receives quality care each workday is up for debate. Day care is like a bankrupting dress rehearsal for college. That’s insane.

Flabbergasted, The Take turned to several leading experts in child care policy to see if the president’s proposal hit the mark … and to find out  if we can hope to see any relief anytime soon.

Mildred Warner, Cornell University (@cornell): Child care is a critical social infrastructure for economic development. You need a comprehensive approach that looks at three major components: the child, the parent and the economy.

The U.S. is a really backward nation: We are the only advanced industrialized nation that doesn’t have universal preschool for children, doesn’t have paid parental leave for parents, doesn’t have significant state support for child care. Any proposal changing that can only help our economic competitiveness. The tax credit proposed in the State of the Union is still too little, but at least it’s something. The idea of expanding preschool definitely makes sense. The idea of paid sick leave is important. If you have your appendix out, you get time off; if you have a baby, you just get disability. It’s really messed up, and it hasn’t moved a lot in the past 20 years.

The problem is that we have a really strong sense in American culture of children being the private responsibility of the parents. We need to recognize, however, that children are part of our collective welfare.

Katie Hamm, Center for American Progress (@CAPEarlyEd): We did have bipartisan support for child care in 2014—the first time in 20 years that the Child Care and Development Block Grant was reauthorized in the House and Senate. Democrats and Republicans can see eye to eye on this issue: Many people are hearing from their constituents and their relatives about just how difficult it is to find quality child care that’s affordable, even among upper- and middle-class families. So without child care, most especially for low-income families, that American dream of upward mobility becomes impossible.