Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Parents know about the high cost of child care, and we’ve blogged about it a number of times. Now a recent brief from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) adds more data and highlights how costs vary across the country.

EPI is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.”

EPI’s brief — “High Quality Child Care Is Out of Reach for Working Families” — points to decades of stagnating wages, noting, “In essence, only a fraction of overall economic growth is trickling down to typical households.”

The brief says that it will take a range of policies to help more Americans share in the nation’s prosperity. Some of these policies should “give workers more leverage in the labor market, and some should expand social insurance and public investments to boost incomes. An obvious example of the latter is helping American families cope with the high cost of child care.”

The burden of child care costs is particularly onerous for parents earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. “Indeed, annual wages total just $15,080 for a full-time, full-year worker (i.e., one who works 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year) paid the federal minimum wage.”

And: “Even after adjusting for higher state and city minimum wages, a full-time, full-year minimum-wage worker is paid less than is necessary for one adult to meet his local family budget threshold…” 

EPI defines the family budget threshold as a measure of “the income families need in order to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living in 618 communities.”

As it frequently does, Boston serves as a daunting example of how high child care casts can be.

“Annual child care costs for an infant and a 4-year-old range from $13,245 in Atlanta to $29,478 in Boston. As a share of total family budgets, these child care costs range from 19.3 percent in San Francisco to 28.7 percent in Boston.”

And as the Washington Post reports, “This reality leaves few options for families with sparse financial resources and inflexible work schedules,” according to Elise Gould, a senior economist at EPI who “co-wrote the study. Even if a parent qualifies for child-care subsidies, waiting lists in some states can stretch long enough for her to lose a job or leave a child in a risky arrangement.”

“It’s time for some sort of policy intervention,” Gould told the Post. “The market just hasn’t found a workable solution for this.”

Even worse, child care can cost more than college.

The Post explains: “The average annual price of day care for infants, which varies across the country, is higher than that of a year of public college in two-thirds of states, Gould noted. Parents pay an average of $16,500 in Massachusetts, $11,628 in California and $12,500 in Illinois, according to Child Care Aware.” Child Care Aware is a national nonprofit that issues an annual report of child care statistics.

A Huffington Post article on EPI’s brief adds: “Not only is child care prohibitively expensive for many U.S. families, but it’s also generally not that great. A 2007 government study found that just 10 percent of U.S. day care providers offered high-quality care. The majority provided care that was ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’”

“That is troubling, since there is abundant research showing that high-quality early childhood care and education are important for a child’s long-term intellectual development and earning potential.”

On its Motherlode blog, the New York Times describes one parent’s personal experience with high child care costs.

“Tasharro Harris is a mother and child care worker in Atlanta. She stops work most days at 2:30 because her paycheck wouldn’t cover the cost of enrolling her two girls in after-school care.”

Harris tells the Times, “It’s $120 a week at the center where I work. I get a discount, so it would be $180 a week total, and I would be able to work maybe an extra three hours a day at $8 an hour. It wouldn’t cover the cost.”

The Times continues, “The math is clear: Ms. Harris can’t afford the child care she helps provide. She could make another $120 a week if she could work until 5:30, leaving her $60 in the red week after week.”

“Most workers — like Tasharro Harris — cobble together care from friends and family.

“That struggle affects every part of many family’s lives, and every part of our economy. Parents can’t do the work they might otherwise do, and they are left with little discretionary income at the end of their limited shift. Children (also known, in economic terms, as the workforce of the future) may be well cared for, or they may be loved and tended to,” but these children ended up sleeping at a hospital with their aunt while their mother worked the night shift.

A key theme in all these findings is that high child care costs can’t be solved by individual families. This is a problem that needs a public policy solution.

EPI’s brief concludes, “As policymakers look for ways to improve living standards for the vast majority of Americans who have endured decades of stagnant wages, increasing child care affordability is an excellent place to start… As child care consumes a larger proportion of family budgets, funding high-quality child care services should be a paramount concern for governments, business leaders, and families alike.”

The Times’ Motherlode blog puts this national challenge more bluntly:

“‘People save for years and years and go into debt to go to college,’ Dr. Gould said. ‘And here are these young families, they haven’t been saving for 18 years to send their kid to day care.’ Instead, every new family finds itself reinventing the wheel when it comes to child care, as though no parent before them had ever had to balance being a breadwinner with being a care-giver. Maybe we should add another piggy bank to the shelf next to the ones marked ‘college’ and ‘retirement’: ‘Grandchildren’s Day Care.’”