Why We All Should Worry About Shoddy Childcare in the U.S.

Wikimedia Commons/Gideon Tsang

Wikimedia Commons | Gideon Tsang

As a mom of two young kids living in New Jersey, I know all-too-well how expensive child care is. In fact, it’s part of the reason I work from home — for now, at least.

But I just heard some statistics that have me floored and in despair about the state of childcare in America today. Everyone in America should be concerned about this issue, because the lack of affordable and accessible childcare not only is a tremendous burden on hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of families, but also on our economy. And the United States lags far behind many other countries who have committed to making sure their children are well taken care of when mom and dad go off to work. It doesn’t exactly send a great message about how much we value the future of our country.

Many of us no longer live near our parents so that they can help with childcare; more and more of us are moving toward cities or urban centers — whether it be for jobs, quality of life or both. Those of us who do live near our parents likely had our kids later in life, so our parents probably can’t keep up with our kids day in and day out, anyway (it is exhausting!)

Not only does this mean more expense, but it means more competition for coveted preschool spots. If we can’t get our kids into preschool, the kids are at home. If we can’t find affordable childcare for them, one parent likely has to drop out of the workforce. Since that parent is usually the mom, with women holding more than 85 percent of purchasing power these days, that means less money in moms’ wallets to spend on the economy. See how this vicious cycle works?

Childcare Costs and the ‘Maternal Wall’

During an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress, “Honoring Our Mothers and Children Through Investments in Early Childhood Education,” on May 8, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of Moms Rising, and other panelists painted a stark picture about the state of affordable and accessible childcare and women’s pay in the workplace. These issues are inextricably linked, given that many women opt out of the workplace because their paycheck isn’t all that much more than what they would be shelling out for childcare every month. For some, their salary wouldn’t be so much more that they seem it “worthwhile” to miss certain years of their offsprings’ childhood.

Consider these statistics:

  • For a middle-income, two-parent family, it costs on average more than $226,000 to raise kids from birth to age 18, and that doesn’t include college costs. That’s up 40 percent from 10 years ago. Just one year of spending on a child can cost more than $13,000.
  • Having a baby is currently the leading cause of a “poverty spell” in the U.S. – when incomes dips below what is needed to pay basic living expenses like food and rent.
  • Only 9% of women working in the U.S. make more than $75,000/year; 53 percent of women make under $30,000/year.
  • Childcare now costs more than in-state college tuition in almost every state in the U.S.
  • In every state and the District of Columbia, center-based child care costs for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old) exceeded annual average rent payments.
  • According to Rowe-Finkbeiner, a Cornell University study shows that with equal resumes and job experiences, moms were offered jobs 80 percent less of the time than women without children. Moms were also taken off the management track for taking fewer late days than non-moms. And, for highly paid jobs, moms were offered $11,000 lower starting salaries, while dads were offered $6,000 more.

Wikimedia Commons | U.S. Navy

“This is a maternal wall that is standing in the way of many women even getting into the room that possibly has a glass ceiling in the first place,Rowe-Finkbeiner said, adding that another study shows women without kids make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, moms make 73 cents to that dollar, single moms make 60 cents, and women of color face even more pay gaps than that.

So, take these wage and childcare figures and, on top of that, consider the fact that many parents in America don’t even have access to preschool for their children. Some might live in remote areas; some might make just enough money to not qualify for Head Start, but not nearly enough to pay for regular childcare so mom and dad can both go to work. Those childcare centers that are affordable and may have space for your child aren’t even necessarily a good place to drop off your kids.

Jonathan Cohn, senior editor for The New Republic and author of Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis — and the People Who Pay the Price, last month wrote a piece for TNR entitled, “The Hell of American Daycare.” He details the history of formal childcare in the United States and conditions many children suffer in childcare centers — centers that are in stark contrast to those in other countries that are well regulated and subsidized.

He also probes the struggle many parents — particularly single and lower-income ones — face trying to get their kids into day care. Between wait lists, prohibitive costs and lack of much government assistance at all, many parents have few choices at their disposal as they try to hold down a job and make sure their children are in safe places of care.

Cohn once asked a Texas childcare inspector how many of the facilities he would feel comfortable sending his own children to. The response: 20 percent.

The median annual salary for a child day care worker is $19,510 a year — that’s less than what janitors, retail-sales workers and car attendants make in a year.

“If that’s what you’re paying, you are not going to attract the best, most talented work force,” Cohn said, though noting that blame for subpar day care facilities is by no means the fault of daycare workers alone. “If we want the best, we have to pay them more. It’s logic.”

‘Why Is Childcare … Not Part Of Our Political Vernacular?’

This is not just a “moms” issue, although many play it off as such. Rather, it’s an economic and political one, Rowe-Finkbeiner stressed. With the purchasing power that women have and the fact that this country’s economy — for better or worse — is based more than 70 percent on consumer spending.

“Why is childcare … not part of our political vernacular?” she asked. “When we have a situation where childcare costs more than college — and it does now in most states in our nation — we have a significant impact, not only on moms, not only on allowing women and men to do to work and have a safe and enriching place for their children to be, but for our national economy as a whole.”


Wikimedia Commons | Grant Barrett

The first few years of a child’s life are the most vital in terms of development — a fact not lost on the Obama administration. Ninety percent of the brain is formed before child enters kindergarten. It’s during this time that kids learn how to learn, how to multitask, to ask questions, they are curious, and they are motivated.

“The evidence is overwhelming, it’s clear. These years represent a critical period from the perspective of the child. This is human development,” said Miriam Calderon, former senior policy adviser for early learning at the White House Domestic Policy Council and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “If we teach children how to learn during this period of time, they can learn anything.”

“During these periods of time, these investments we make are some of the most cost-effective dollars we can make in the education space,” she added.

But there is a ray of hope. Whereas this issue once was mainly the burden of a smaller, poorer group of parents in America (meaning people with less political clout), it’s now being felt by millions of parents across the country. That means the time is ripe for political action, particularly because President Obama is putting more emphasis on early childhood education and proposing a tax hike on cigarettes and tobacco for his “Preschool for All” plan in his proposed FY2014 budget. Obama wants $75 billion in new funding over the next 10 years to work with states and expand access to preschool for low- and middle-income children and incentivize states to establish full-day kindergarten. Overall, the budget spends $90 billion on Preschool for All and on expanding in-home visiting for children.

What No One Tells You

When you become pregnant, your thoughts turn to what to name your baby, what color to paint his or her room or how you can’t wait to show that precious little one all that is wonderful about the world. You’re likely not thinking about getting your child on a wait list for school. Unless you have friends who had children before you and have gone through the agonizing ordeal of finding childcare, no one tells you the following:

  1. You should get on a wait list for your preferred childcare facility while you are still pregnant. Don’t for a second think this isn’t true. I know several women who have done this. You can’t wait until you figure out your work-home situation after baby is born.
  2. You need to start the preschool search and enrollment process at least two years before you plan on having your child attend, particularly if there are a lot of kids in your neighborhood who are more competition for entry.
  3. The admissions process for “good” schools can be more complicated that that of college admissions.
  4. You should expect to shell out at least $1,000 a month for one kid at a decent childcare facility. God forbid you have twins (or more!) and have to pay double that amount. The amount goes down a little as kids get older but not too much.
  5. Yes, you can get a babysitter or nanny instead of putting your child in daycare so he or she can be home, but that typically costs more than having your child taken care of outside the home.

My 3-year-old has been wait listed at more than one school where we live. Wechildcarewaitlist opted for a toddler program at a preschool because I didn’t need full daycare working from home, and couldn’t justify it financially given my income. Plus, I figured he would “learn” more in that type of environment than daycare and be given more structure. (Note to self: start looking for somewhere to send my 3-month-old when it’s time.)

One local preschool that offers half-day programs five days a week to accommodate my work-from-home schedule (I refuse to pay for full-day care because he still naps) was full by January — nine months before he even would have started school.

Most of the preschools in town only offer care for kids his age a few days a week, for a few hours a day. If you’re merely looking for something for your child to do a few hours a week to get out of the house, that’s swell. But it certainly doesn’t allow for one to work any decent amount of time. I couldn’t stomach paying $9,000 for 9 months of preschool in a nearby town for four days a week, half-days at a school I really liked, or at another facility nearby that was supposed to be amazing — for $1,490 a month.

I realize how extremely fortunate I am that I can work from home and still be with my kids, a option many parents don’t have, and that we could afford these schools if we wanted to pay that much money. Many families have far fewer options, and much less ability to pay such exorbitant costs.

The need couldn’t be greater for federal assistance. By not helping America’s families provide safe, affordable childcare for their children, our government is telling its people that if they aren’t fortunate enough to make enough money to pay more than college tuition to put their kids into daycare or preschool, well, too bad for them. We don’t care about the future generations who will one day lead this country. Is that really the message we want to send?

Contributor Liza Porteus Viana is a journalist with more than 12 years of experience covering politics. She also covers business, intellectual property and homeland security for a number of media outlets, and is editor of genConnect.com. Like many other moms, she is always trying to find that oh-so-elusive work-life balance as a full-time freelancer with a toddler at home in New Jersey. She previously worked at FOXNews.com as a national and political correspondent, and National Journal as a technology policy writer in Washington, D.C., and her work has appeared in publications such as Worth Magazine, Portfolio, Politics Daily, The Huffington Post and Forward Magazine. Liza tweets at@lizapviana and is on Facebook. She also blogs at lizapviana.com.

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