The final blog in this week's four-part MetroTrends series about the struggle to locate, access, and afford high-quality child care. Don't miss previous blogs that introduce the child care project, describe the challenges to understanding child care options, and the difficulty securing a spot amid a child care shortage.
“It’s sad that you’ve gotta choose your day care by a place that you can afford.” – Grace, a white mother living in Seattle
A clean and inviting room full of toys and materials. A highly trained teacher with skills, experience, and that “special something” that makes children love her. A warm and caring individual who you can approach for advice about your child. These are things you’d hope parents would say as they describe why they chose their child care provider. Instead, most working parents, like the ones we interviewed in our study, select their child care primarily because of location and cost.
It’s possible that the closest and most affordable services provide good quality care. But when parents options are constrained to those close to home or work (or on a nearby bus line) and that they can afford, we must question if they are really buying (and providing their children with) the best care for their needs.
Child care is one of the top household expenses along with housing and food. The average poor family pays 20 percent of its annual income on child care,and the costs can be double or more for families with multiple young children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So why work and spend your paycheck on child care when you can stay home and care for your own children? If you talk to almost any working mother—low-income or not—she will tell you that, at some point, she considered not working because the money she earns goes directly to child care. This obviously isn’t good for employers and it’s not ideal for mothers who desire to work and contribute to their families and to society.
Not all low-income families meet the strict eligibility criteria for child care subsidies or government-subsidized programs like Head Start, so many have a hard time finding care they can actually afford. Plus, those subsidized programs are capped, not entitlement, benefits, so in some states or localities, even eligible families can’t get access.
Parents are alarmed when they discover that some programs are free but they can’t access them (because of waiting lists or ineligibility) and other providers cost $80 to $400 a week per child.
How do we improve families’ access to affordable care options? We need to increase our investment in subsidized early care and education programs. This means expanding Head Start and Early Head Start programs, increasing spending for the Child Care and Development Fund to guarantee child care subsidies for all eligible families, and raising the income eligibility level for subsidized programs to allow more near-poor families to enroll. Integrating early childhood resources and streamlining enrollment across programs will also facilitate access. This is not an easy task and will require support at the federal, state, and local levels, but parents’ employment stability and children’s well-being depends on it.