How Day Care Costs Are Killing America’s Family Budgets

Charles D. Ellison
Generic image of teacher with preschool children 

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.


The president's proposal is effective in setting the bar in terms of where we want to go. The authorization bill didn't include any new money. But the administration has taken the lead on the issue in making sure the issue is not just about getting people to work but about child development. There's been more recognition of the brain science on those first years. Also, women's employment and economic security is a key issue, and child care is a key component of that. And while wages remain stagnant, the cost of child care continues rising. The micro day-to-day struggle of people is pushing the discussion.

Elise Gould, Economic Policy Institute (@eliselgould): The universal-pre-K component is really critical. For many low-income, lower-wage parents who don't have control over their hours or schedules, it can be very hard to find good child care or pre-K.


Child care is expensive: It's only second to housing in terms of cost. One challenge is that our society prides itself on choice rather than access to a quality system. Another issue is that child care workers are paid so little, just like teachers. There's a balancing act right now between making the care affordable for families, and then yet again you want to make sure the child care jobs are decent jobs. 

There is an opportunity here, in having a universal system, to level the playing field between people who have had very different realities, especially people of color or those who have been marginalized. 


Gina Adams, Urban Institute (@urbaninstitute): While the president’s overall push for full funding for child care and tax revisions is promising, it is also worth noticing the smaller initiative he suggests to promote innovation in the child-care-subsidy system.

A major challenge is how to ensure that child care assistance supports access to good-quality care while also addressing the child care needs of families for whom good-quality options are scarce. In recent years, there has been more of a focus on using subsidy funds to help families access good-quality child care centers. However, the problem is that these quality centers aren’t necessarily available for many families. So directing subsidies toward high-quality centers can inadvertently make them unavailable for many of these families who need child care assistance. The innovation fund is important because it recognizes that we must find ways to address the child care needs of families with nontraditional work schedules, families who live in rural communities, and  families who have children with disabilities or other special needs.


Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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