Average cost of child care across the states. Screenshot: New America's website
Average cost of child care across the states. Image: New America’s website

What’s the state of child care in today’s America, which is no longer the land of the “Leave it to Beaver” breadwinner-homemaker family?

To find out, the newly released Care Report and the accompanying Care Index look at all 50 states and the district of Columbia to assess three categories: cost, quality, and availability.

The bad news: “no single state does well in all three categories. Instead, families, providers, and policymakers in every state make difficult compromises that often shape family decisions and can determine the course of children’s futures.”

That’s a problem in today’s America where “in a majority of families with children under 18, all parents work for pay outside the home. That means, on any given day, about 12 million children under the age of five will need a safe place to go and someone loving to care for them.”

The report and the index were produced by the think tank New America and by Care.com, the website that links families to care providers, in conjunction with other organizations.

“The index aims to inform a national conversation about early care and learning that the country is beginning to undertake after decades of inaction amid rapidly changing family dynamics,” the Washington Post reports.

Those dynamics include high prices, varying quality, and limited availability. As the Care report explains:

• “The average cost of full-time care in child care centers for all children ages 0-4 in the United States is $9,589 a year, higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition ($9,410).”

• “The cost of infant care in centers is 12 percent higher than for older children, and outstrips the cost of in-state tuition and fees in 33 states.”

• “Nationally, only 11 percent of child care establishments are accredited by the National Association for the Education of the Young Child or the National Association for Family Child Care,” and

• “Care is not always available for families who need it. In South Dakota, all parents work in 82 percent of families with children under 18, the highest share of working families in the country. Yet the state has among the lowest availability of care.”

The report also profiles a caregiver in Massachusetts who struggles with the low wages that her job pays.

“ ‘Money has been a constant struggle,’ says Kim Silva of her 30 years as an early education teacher in Massachusetts. ‘One unexpected expense can put you in the hole for months.’ ”

“Silva, 46, is the lead teacher in a preschool classroom at NorthStar, a child care center in New Bedford. NorthStar largely serves children whose parents’ income is low enough that they are eligible to receive financial subsidies from the state to help pay for care. Silva has worked there since she was 15, moving from aide to teacher to lead teacher. Yet after more than three decades, she makes only $11.91 an hour. That’s $25,000 a year.”

How can America create a modern child care system that works for families?

New America proposes “systemic change to the early care and learning infrastructure, including additional public and private investment,” better training and pay, professionalization of the teaching workforce, and a range of policy recommendations, among them:

• universal paid family leave

• expanding and improving cash assistance programs

• implementing high quality universal pre-K programs, and

• focusing resources on programs aimed at dual-language learners

“The short version, then, is that the Care Index found that the early care and learning system isn’t working. For anyone,” New America says.

“A truly comprehensive system would give families real choices for how to combine their work and home lives,” which is way the country needs to build “an early care and learning infrastructure that works for everyone.”