When Daycare Costs More Than Rent, No Wonder Some Moms Never Return To Work

by Valerie Williams
Originally Published: 
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It’s no secret that childcare is incredibly expensive in this country. Often, prohibitively so, when it comes to a mother deciding whether to return to work after having a baby. Some new statistics released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) highlight just how difficult it is for a family to afford childcare, often resulting in women becoming stay-at-home moms as a default. If daycare is so expensive that it’s cheaper for a parent to stop working, it’s obvious that this is a problem that needs solutions.

According to the EPI’s findings, the below factors make good-quality childcare merely a pipe dream for thousands of families:

  • In 33 states and the District of Columbia, infant care costs exceed the average cost of in-state college tuition at public 4-year institutions.
  • Among families with two children (a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old), child care costs exceed rent in 500 out of 618 family budget areas. For two-child families, child care costs range from about half as much as rent in San Francisco to nearly three times rent in Binghamton, New York.
  • As a share of total family budgets, center-based child care for single-parent families with two children (ages 4 and 8) ranges from 11.7 percent in New Orleans to 33.7 percent in Buffalo, New York.

These numbers are pretty scary to consider and only the tip of the iceberg as far as all the comparisons one could make about what these costs mean for American families. For childcare to be more than three times the rent anywhere is simply unacceptable. Sadly, it’s also not surprising to any parent who has done the numbers and tried to work out a budget that includes childcare in a two-income household. So many families find it makes no financial sense for one parent, typically the mother, to go back to work.

My family was once a part of these statistics. When our first child was born, I was early in my career and not making enough money to bother putting her in daycare. We had another child quickly after to “get it over with,” knowing I would need to return to work eventually in order for us to attain our future financial goals. When our youngest was 18 months old, we put our children in daycare, and a very large part of my salary was eaten up by the cost. We reasoned that my getting back into the workforce was worth the sacrifice temporarily, and statistics bear that out. A woman’s earnings can fall up to 10 percent every two years she’s not working. This puts many mothers in the same position I was in — either staying at home because their salary doesn’t make sense when stacked up next to childcare costs. Or, working at a near-loss with a large part of her earnings going to childcare, just to keep her foot in the door. The choice becomes obvious at that point, and this is where America is failing its families. Childcare costs should not stop a woman from returning to work, nor should it eat up 75 percent of a minimum wage salary, as the EPI states it does in Hawaii. It’s simply ludicrous.

All of this points to the fact that having children has become a privilege of the wealthy, rather than something any family can do, and it’s shameful. As Slate points out, “Expensive child care doesn’t just keep women out of the workforce and hamper their autonomy—it sets off a ripple effect that sustains a system of income inequality, making both child-rearing and working outside the home privileges of the rich.” It used to be that only the rich could afford to be stay-at-home parents, but that’s no longer the case for many families who have a parent staying home solely because childcare is too expensive for them to justify working.

Hopefully, sweeping change isn’t too far off, as politicians are speaking out about the dire situation for working families and mounting childcare costs. President Obama called affordable childcare a “must-have” in this year’s State of the Union address, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is making the push for universal pre-kindergarten a goal for his first term in office. It’s time for our country to recognize what the wage gap, stagnant earnings and rising childcare costs are beginning to mean for families. Having a baby shouldn’t be something that only the rich can do comfortably. There is no single solution, but hopefully, politicians and fed-up parents can help affect policy changes to benefit working families in need of quality childcare that doesn’t cost more than their mortgage.

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