Parents of school-aged children are breathing a sigh of relief this month, as they send their kids back to school and say good bye to pricy summer camp bills. Parents of younger children are not so lucky.
The Census Bureau estimates that on any given week about 12.5 million children under age five are enrolled in some form of childcare, but the struggle to find affordable, quality care has become so difficult, some are calling it a crisis. According to Childcare Aware of America, a childcare advocacy nonprofit, the average cost of full-time daycare for a four-year old ranges from $3,900 to $11,700 per year with urban parents paying 28 percent more, on average, than rural parents in the same state.
It’s no wonder the birth-rate has been dropping.
In 20 states, and the District of Columbia, the cost of daycare for two children exceeds the average mortgage payment, and in 36 states and the District of Columbia, a year of daycare for an infant costs more than a year of tuition at an in-state college. But unlike college costs, there is currently no system of public financing to help make childcare more affordable. (New York has launched a pilot program making low-interest loans available to families who need help covering childcare costs.)
Though the Department of Health and Human Services recommends that families spend only 10 percent of their combined income on childcare, that’s tough for middle-income families and almost impossible for low-income families without a federal subsidy says Michelle Noth McCready, a senior state and local policy advisor for Child Care Aware of AmericaCCAA. The cost of full-time care for one infant ranges from about 7 percent to 16 percent of the median income for a married couple.
When Jeannie Stephenson’s son was born in 2011, she realized her bakery job wouldn’t cover daycare costs near her pricy South Loop, Chicago neighborhood. Stephenson was able to stop working (relying on her husband’s income to cover rent and family expenses) and stay home with her baby. She even brought in extra money by caring for another couple’s infant as well.
But Stephenson wanted to go back to work, so she and her husband decided to make some big changes. They moved to a bigger apartment in a cheaper neighborhood. That let them hire a nanny, who takes care of their child while Jeannie goes to work. The nanny also rents a room in the couple’s larger apartment, which offsets the expense of his salary.
Stephenson estimates that the arrangement saves her about $500 per month compared to the cost of nearby childcare facilities.
While urban parents may have access to daycare alternatives like live-in care, nanny-shares, and childcare co-ops, rural parents and often have fewer choices, lower incomes, and limited public transportation says Kathleen Belanger, a social work professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a member of Rural Policy Research Institute's human services panel.
Karie Geyer, a self-employed marketing consultant, understands the limitations of rural childcare options. After moving from Sioux Falls, S.D., to the small community of Veblen, S.D., two years ago, Geyer enrolled her then one-year-old daughter in the town's sole licensed childcare center just ten months before it closed. Left with no other options, Geyer and a group of panicked parents met with the state social services department, visited other rural childcare facilities and decided to open their own center.
"We had officials through the Department of Social Services basically tell us if this daycare [doesn't work]...this is basically a slow death for your community," she says. "The alternative of doing nothing was not a choice for the people that started this up."
One year later, Schoolhouse Daycare is a licensed nonprofit center housed in a former elementary school that services serves up to 15 children ranging from infant through pre-school age.
Even in locales with an abundance of childcare facilities, quality is a concern. A 2013 study by Child Care Aware of AmericaCCAA that measured how well daycare facilities adhered to state licensing requirements showed that all states, on average, earned a "C" grade or below on a standard grading scale. Facilities that maintain above-par standards frequently have a wait list.
"I found out that I was pregnant in May and when I was talking to some friends in July, my friend said 'If you're not on a waiting list for a daycare by now, you might not get into daycare. I was [two] months pregnant at the time,'" explains Becca Perez, a research analyst based in the small town of Blacksburg, Virginia. "There were a lot of daycares in the area here, but not a lot that we would consider putting our daughter in."
Of the 19 licensed daycare facilities listed in Blacksburg area codes by the Virginia Department of Social Services, only four were free of licensing violations in the past two years. These violations ranged from minor infractions to more serious issues.
More than a year later, Perez's now six-month-old daughter is still on wait lists for two daycare centers. Perez and her husband switch off on childcare duties while she works during the day and he does consulting work from home at night. Perez says that they're satisfied with the arrangement and that it saves about $750 a month in expenses.
"I think even if we did [get into a daycare], we'd probably still keep up with this plan," she says.