When it’s cheaper for parents to stay home than pay for child care

First it was pink eye. Then an ear infection. Tuesday, it was the stomach flu. This is the third week in a row that Evelyn, a full-time home care coordinator in Falls Church, Virginia, has had to leave work early to care for one of her two boys.

Ages five and eight, they leave this single mom little choice. When they’re sick or snow closes schools, as it did many times this past winter, Evelyn has to be the caretaker. A back up babysitter could run her $50 per child, per day. “For the most part,” she says, “I would just miss work because it wasn’t worth it for me.”

In her late 20s, Evelyn is caught between needing and wanting to work full-time and needing and wanting to provide safe care for her children. That’s proving an extraordinarily difficult balance to strike as the cost of child care climbs.

Average weekly child care expenses for working moms with kids under 15 have shot up 70 percent between 1985 and 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

Evelyn doesn’t earn enough to pay for child care on her own, but if she leaves work to watch the kids herself, she fears her career — and possibly her earnings potential — are taking a hit.

Whenever she’s home with one of her kids, Evelyn’s on-call phone, staffing phone and personal cell are at her side as she tries to coordinate patient and clinician schedules remotely. She credits her boss for being understanding of her situation, but she knows that heading out before 5 p.m. only makes more work for her co-workers. “I feel very lucky I can work from home sometimes,” she says. “But it doesn’t make me feel comfortable.”

No one’s ever said anything to Evelyn, but she feels she’s not growing as an employee the way the owners of the home care agency want her to. It’s that feeling, she says, where “they know you can do it but there are certain things holding them back; they don’t want to give you more responsibility with two kids in elementary school.”

Employees who skip work when child care arrangements fall through cost U.S. businesses $3 billion annually, according to a 2013 report from ChildCare Aware, a national organization of child care resources and referral agencies.

Evelyn’s lucky her two boys are in school for most of the day. In three out of four regions of the United States, the cost of full-time center-based child care for two children (calculated as an infant and four-year old) is the highest household expense. Even with her kids in an after-school program at their school, child care takes about a 30 to 40 percent bite out of her budget.

That’s why summer and spring break make Evelyn anxious. She scouts the Department of Parks and Recreation for summer camps that will keep her kids busy and supervised Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 p.m.

“We’re talking eight full hours. Babysitters just have them sit down and watch TV,” she says. “That’s not what I want for my children.”

But those camps can run $500 per child per week — and that’s not including meals and snacks. Everything her kids eat they have to bring from home. Public assistance is available, but not for Evelyn. She makes over $30,000 a year, so her family doesn’t qualify.

She starts the summer camp search early, using her lunch hour to fill out applications for some of the few public scholarships available. And her kids hold her to that. “Mom, remember to send in the applications,” they’ll say.

For her boys, though, summer isn’t about trying a new sport or getting to go where their friends go; they go where mom can afford. Basketball camp (at $300) instead of fly fishing camp (at $500) last break made her eldest miserable for the first few days.

But Evelyn knows her family is fortunate to be where they are. Two years ago, she was a homeless working mother of two. An Arlington, Virginia-based organization called Doorways for Women and Families helped them find shelter and has since given her grant money to pay for the boys’ after-school care at the school.

Those grants stop next year. And that’s when Evelyn will find out how much child care’s really going to cost her.

In the Making Sen$e segment below, Paul Solman examines the hefty cost of child care, learning that in many states, infant child care is more expensive that in-state college tuition.

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