The True Cost of a Child Care System?

If you’ve ever looked into child care options and have quickly found your jaw on the floor, you’re not alone. New parents often face sticker shock when confronted with the steep cost of child care. That's especially true here in the District, where child care often costs as much as college tuition for working parents who don't qualify for subsidies – and the cost is rising.  

We know that early childhood education can play a critical role in building cognitive abilities and important behavioral attributes like motivation, perseverance and sociability. Developing these skills when children are young pays off down the road; research suggests that children, especially children in low-income families, who attend high-quality early childhood programs are less likely to need special education and remediation and are more likely to reach higher academic achievement, graduation rates and incomes in adulthood compared to those who don’t. Furthermore, the economic benefits to communities — measured by higher tax revenues, reduced use of social safety net programs and lower incarceration rates — far outweigh the costs of quality early childhood programs. 

According to a recent Child Care Aware report, the reality that the average cost of child care for an infant may top the cost of tuition and fees at a public university is not one faced exclusively in the District, but also one faced by parents in 31 states nationwide.

Though another report produced by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) titled Turning the Corner: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2014, highlights that low-income families in many states – 33, to be exact – had greater access to child care between 2013 and 2014, it is crucial to note that this progress is relative.

The NWLC report examines state policies on reimbursements for child care providers who accept vouchers for low-income families. While the federal government recommends that states set reimbursements at the 75th percentile of market rates, just one state does so, down from three states last year and dramatically down from 22 in 2001. Given those low reimbursement rates coupled with the high costs of providing care to young children, it should be no surprise that child care workers earn distressingly low salaries in their jobs. As we have written about before, recruiting and retaining high-quality child care teachers with knowledge and experience in child development is an exceptionally difficult task.

But, getting back to the point of the cost of child care, how could it cost more than college

As we move towards a more robust child care industry with a dual emphasis on supporting early childhood development and early education, we need to ensure that programs are equipped to fulfill both missions — and this takes significant investment. Just as college professors are compensated both for their high degree of educational attainment and for teaching students, child care professionals must also first receive specialized training and continuing education and then must also be proportionally compensated for caring for infants and toddlers. Centers must be able to provide competitive compensation to retain qualified staff and give them the ongoing professional development the field demands.

When my daughter was six months old I was confronted with the decision about going back to work and choosing a child care option for her. Ultimately, I decided to stay home to care for her. By the time I had my second child, I was faced with spending upwards of 65% of my income after taxes for quality child care for my 18 month-old and newborn infant. Again, I decided to stay home. Despite having worked in the early care and education field for most of my career until that point, I hadn’t fully realized how daunting and limited the choices were for working parents of young children.

As a parent, there is no limit to what I would pay to ensure my children are cared for in a nurturing, safe and warm environment where they are given the chance to learn and grow. All children, whether in Ward 3 or Ward 8, deserve the same high-quality care. As a society, we cannot simply put a price tag on quality and declare it out of reach for some. We must find a way to make high-quality child care accessible for all of DC’s youngest citizens.

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