TOPICS > Economy > parenting now

Hefty child care costs present catch-22 for working parents

May 8, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
In most of the country, child care is the most expensive part of the family budget. Infant care now costs more than state college tuition in many places. But while it might demand a luxury price, offering important advantages to kids, it’s an imperative for working parents. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on how the strain of paying for care cuts across class and income lines.
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GWEN IFILL: The cost and affordability of good child care is the focus of the next installment in our series Parenting Now.

It’s a major concern for families throughout the country. And in different ways, it cuts across lines of class and income.

The NewsHour’s economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has the story, part of his reporting Making Sense of financial news.

DANIELLE SPIRO: Where’s mommy? There she is.

PAUL SOLMAN: When Baltimore teacher Danielle Spiro gave birth to her daughter Eva last year, she had to quit her job.

DANIELLE SPIRO: There was no way I was going to be to be able to ever afford day care.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tiffany Beroid worked at Wal-Mart in Laurel, Maryland, where she had her second daughter.

TIFFANY BEROID: I made $12,000 for the whole year, and day care was costing, I want to say $275 to $300 a week just for the newborn.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s more than she was earning.

In Alexandria, Virginia, moth of two Lisa Boyle and her husband can make the payments. Still:

LISA BOYLE, Assistant Director, Crystal City Children’s Center: Close to half of our income goes to child care.

PAUL SOLMAN: Depending on where you live in America these days, full-time infant care can run to $24,000 a year.

Lynette Fraga heads the advocacy group Child Care Aware.

LYNETTE FRAGA, Executive Director, Child Care Aware of America: In most regions of the country, child care is the most expensive part of a family’s budget.

PAUL SOLMAN: In most places, infant care now costs more than state college tuition. It is a cost rising as much as eight times faster than family income in some places. And it presents a sort of generational catch-22.

Your kids figure to need advantages like quality infant and then day care to prosper in school and the workplace, but, with stagnant wages, you can’t afford them.

And yet, says Fraga, the research is unequivocal.

LYNETTE FRAGA: We know that during the first couple of years of life, the brain is growing at a very rapid rate, and that’s where we really should be putting investment.

PAUL SOLMAN: President Obama called for universal preschool in this year’s State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.

PAUL SOLMAN: But so far, nothing’s happened. And parents like Danielle Spiro are still on their own.

DANIELLE SPIRO: Going to get you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Spiro’s teacher salary wasn’t enough to cover the cost of caring for her daughter.

DANIELLE SPIRO: I was, after taxes, bringing home about $500 a week. And with our mortgage and everything else, it just wasn’t going to work.

PAUL SOLMAN: Spiro is the family’s primary earner. Her husband is a student.

After she joined her mom’s consulting firm, she hired a nanny she loves, but, even on her $70,000 salary, can only afford part-time. To bridge the gap, she put her 1-year-old in the cheapest home day care she could find. It proved a poor alternative.

DANIELLE SPIRO: The TV was on most of the day. It just wasn’t an ideal situation, but I didn’t really have very many choices.

PAUL SOLMAN: Spiro pulled her out and now watches her daughter herself when the nanny isn’t there.

DANIELLE SPIRO: I am waking up with her somewhere between 5:30 to 6:00 in the morning, and I’m with her all day, and I put her to bed around 6:30 at night, eat, clean the house, get a little laundry in, and then start my work.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sometimes he finishes at 1:00 in the morning, or later.

Tiffany Beroid cut back from full-time work for to weekends to save on child care when her daughter Amia came along.

TIFFANY BEROID: She was going to day care, and it was really expensive, and it was taking the majority of my paycheck and some of my husband’s paycheck. I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom. And I was forced to basically take the part-time position.

PAUL SOLMAN: And forced to take Amia out of day care, which Beroid believed was benefiting the baby, namely with soft skills.

TIFFANY BEROID: This plays a big role in their social lives, interacting with other kids.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, day care costs are driving more mothers to opt out altogether. Almost one-third now stay at home, the most in more than two decades.

WOMEN (singing): Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

PAUL SOLMAN: Crystal City Children’s Center costs over $20,000 a year for full-time infant care, high, but typical in the wealthy D.C. suburbs

For high-quality care, however, there is little costs and revenue, says director Luellen Matthews.

LUELLEN MATTHEWS, Director, Crystal City Children’s Center: We have got to have three teachers in there, and you have only nine children.

So, if you look at the tuition from nine children to pay three teachers, plus the overhead, lights, heat, rent, it’s very, very small.

PAUL SOLMAN: Pay here averages barely $16 an hour. But if the center paid more?

LUELLEN MATTHEWS: I would have to increase my tuition.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lisa Boyle, the center’s assistant director, understands the whipsaw better than most. She uses almost all her salary to pay to pay for her children to come here. Even though she gets a discount for her 3-year-old son, in the end:

LISA BOYLE: I work to earn about $100 every week.

PAUL SOLMAN: Boyle can swing it because her husband works too. Plus, she’s convinced it’s an important investment.

LISA BOYLE: When you looking at alternatives that were cheaper, it was always, you know, lower quality. So it is a choice that we have made to invest in our children’s education. And at zero to 3, you just can’t get those years back. It was another one of those decisions where we went back and forth, and, you know, eventually, the baby wins.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Single moms like Paula Wilson of Oxon Hill, Maryland, don’t have such choices. She simply can’t afford a place like Crystal City.

PAULA WILSON: Everything is on me. I don’t have someone to share the bills with, so I have to make sure I plan everything out to a T.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wilson, a hotel maid, sends her 3-year-old, Daniel, to a family-run day care she likes and can just afford. But it’s 20 minutes away, and she can’t afford a car.

PAULA WILSON: Every day, I have to figure out how Daniel is going to get to day care. I know they have closer day cares in the area, but they’re way too expensive.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, Wilson asks friends and family to help with transportation.

There are child care subsidies available, but she doesn’t qualify.

PAULA WILSON: So, oh, you make $17 an hour. You must be able to afford it. But they don’t look at the fact that sometimes the hotel is slow, and you never know when it’s going to be slow.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, Tiffany Beroid recently lost her job at Wal-Mart.

TIFFANY BEROID: Before, we were struggling. Now we have to struggle even more to make ends meet. We need the income so we can make sure that we have rent or we can make sure that we have food at clothing for the children.

PAUL SOLMAN: For such families, infant and child care are luxuries, but says Lynette Fraga:

LYNETTE FRAGA: It’s also an economic and educational imperative. Families have to work. And when they have to work, they need a quality setting to put their children in, to be cared and nurtured and developed for later school success.

PAUL SOLMAN: Unfortunately, these are quality settings that a great many Americans just can’t afford.

GWEN IFILL: Even parents who work full-time often can’t afford backup child care. Read the story of a single mom who feels caught between needing to care for her kids when they’re not at school and climbing the ladder at work. That’s on Making Sense.