American child care is expensive, dangerous, and unreliable. Kids and parents are paying a steep price.
For a while Angelica Gonzalez was able to make everything work. Shortly after she graduated college, she landed a dream job—working as a family liaison in a school district—and she qualified for child care subsidies that meant she had to pay only $15 a month for her young daughter. Then one day she received an unexpected child support payment of about $200, which increased her income so sharply that her subsidy was rescinded. Nearly overnight, her child care payment shot up to $800. She took on a second job, bringing her kids with her in the evenings, but it became too much. "This whole life I had built was just falling apart," she says.
Gonzalez left both jobs in search of higher pay, but nothing better materialized. She turned to neighbors to watch her children, but that proved to be dangerous: one person so neglected them that her daughter almost got run over by a car.
It was in the middle of this difficult period that she got involved with a man who promised to help her but who turned out to be abusive. "My abuser was like, 'Oh you work so hard, and you're struggling, and I just want to help,'" she says. "[I was] feeling so vulnerable and so exhausted and so overworked." Eventually, she was offered what seemed like a way out—a salaried sales position in marketing that would have allowed her to support herself.
But every day care center she contacted to care for her two-year-old son, the youngest of her two children at the time, was completely full. "I don't have family or friends or people to kind of fill that gap," she says. So she stayed with her boyfriend, and the more he helped, the harder it became to escape: "When I would try to leave him, I'd be homeless."
She was connected with the YWCA and moved into a homeless shelter for domestic violence victims. It was there that she hatched her current plan to get a law degree. "If I become a lawyer, then I'll have enough money to really pay for my child care and I won't be vulnerable," she says.
Gonzalez was accepted into law school while living in a homeless shelter. But in order to qualify for a government subsidy for child care, she has to work while she's in school—a job with flexible hours that pays at least $500 a month. While her kids are being taken care of, she goes to class; she works at night. "I sleep three hours a night," she says.
Among all her struggles—hunger, homelessness, violence—it is child care that has presented Gonzalez with the greatest challenge. If she lacks food, she can go to a food bank, she reasons. If she can't afford housing, she can stay on someone's couch or live in a car. "But if you don't have child care, you can't work." So little help was available to her. "There's no solution," Gonzalez says. "It's just kind of become this accepted thing.… I'm always trying to make money to pay for child care."
"I'm almost forced to be a stay-at-home mom"
What Gonzalez endured just to find a safe, affordable, and reliable place to leave her children is extreme. But most American parents will recognize at least part of her story.
In a recent poll, the most common challenge parents said they face when trying to get child care is the price. The average price of day care for an infant reaches as much as $17,000 a year; it's nearly $13,000 for a four-year-old. Putting two kids in a center costs families more than what they typically spend on food and, in much of the country, on housing. In 28 states and Washington, D.C., sending an infant to day care costs more than sending an 18-year-old to public college. The price tag has been climbing at an extraordinary rate: The cost for families with a working mother rose 70 percent between 1985 and 2012.
Some parents, mostly low-income ones who work, can get help to defray that cost. But spending on assistance through various federal programs is at a 12-year low. Today just 15 percent of eligible children are served by federal subsidies. The Child Care and Development Block Grant, the main source of this kind of support, currently serves the smallest number of children since 1998; 364,000 were dropped from its register between 2006 and 2014. And subsidies fail to reach anyone living much above the poverty line. For all other parents, the only help they can expect from the government is the child and dependent care tax credit, which at most recoups $3,000 of an annual cost.
Sarah, who lives in North Carolina and didn't want to use her last name, doesn't even qualify for the tax credit because she doesn't have a job. Just after she graduated from college, she got pregnant and decided to postpone her job search. "No one's going to hire a pregnant lady," she says.
She hasn't been able to get paying work since. Instead, she cares for her three-year-old son and 15-month-old daughter full-time. She recently went back to school to get her teaching certificate and ended up paying between $1,200 and $1,600 a month for day care while she fulfilled unpaid student teaching requirements. Even with such a high sticker price, she worried about the day care's quality: The providers mostly played them Disney videos or let her kids go outside. She left her program halfway through the semester. "I'm almost forced to be a stay-at-home mom," she says. "I will always be cheaper than a day care."
Sarah is one of many women who have been pushed out of the workforce by the staggering cost of care. The share of American women in the labor force has been steadily declining for two decades after rising at a healthy clip during the '70s and '80s. One major culprit is the cost of care: A recent paper found that the increase in the price between 1990 and 2010 reduced women's employment by 5 percent overall and by 13 percent among women with young children specifically. Other research has found that the U.S. is falling behind our developed peers when it comes to working women due to a lack of child care and paid leave. In Quebec, Canada, for example, parents can use universal, $7-a-day child care from birth to age 12; the implementation of the program in the '90s significantly increased women's employment rate.
Sarah loves being a mother, but she would really like to be a high school teacher. Yet she just can't see how she could afford child care, even with a salary and the money her husband brings in from his job in IT. "We're middle class…. But I cannot sacrifice $400 a week for both of my children," she says. "I don't know when I'll return to work, and that's frustrating." She anticipates getting a job once her son is in kindergarten, when she is nearly 40. Sarah dreams of having a third child, but has written the idea off as impossible. "If I did, that would financially ruin us," she says. "As much as I would always want another child, I just couldn't afford it. It would bankrupt us."
"You can't fund this on parents alone"
There's a consensus that K-12 education is a public good, says Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. But we thrust younger kids into a market-based system with just a smattering of public funds. Nearly all the money for early education has to come from parents. "You can't fund this on parents alone and support a high-quality, well-paid staff," Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center, says. If there's not enough coming into the system, then pay and standards have to be lowered.
Meanwhile, it's difficult to find ways to cut costs or increase efficiency. Child care is labor intensive—it requires an adult-to-child ratio that can't be reduced. Most of the other costs, such as space, are fixed. "There are a certain number of constraints in this sector that don't allow for the kinds of efficiencies you'd look for in other sectors," says Vivien Labaton, cofounder of the campaign Make It Work. Wages for those in the industry are already very low. The median pay for child care providers is under $10 an hour across the country—less than the wages of people who care for zoo animals or pets and about on par with parking lot attendants and fast food workers. Preschool teachers fare a bit better at just under $14 an hour. And growth in both groups' compensation has long stagnated even as fees climb.
"There's this huge disconnect between the importance of the work that child care providers are doing and what they're paid," Labaton says. And low pay for providers creates a huge problem. A landmark 1989 study determined that the best predictor of high-quality child care was high wages for the staff. Overall, though, American child care is of pretty dismal quality. Less than 10 percent were deemed high quality in a 2007 survey. Another report from 2013 gave no states an A or B grade for their health and safety standards in day care centers. Most earned either a D or failing. These environments can lead to unspeakable tragedies—at least 45 children died in Missouri day cares between 2007 and 2010.
Even families who can afford child care might not be able to get it, as Gonzalez found out when she was offered the marketing job. Many centers are simply full; in other places, they don't exist. In a study of eight states, the Center for American Progress found that more than 40 percent of children live in what it calls "child care deserts," or zip codes where there are either no day care centers or more than three times as many children under the age of five as there are available spots. "Your chances of getting a high-quality program for even six hours a day at [age] four are less than one in ten," says W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
$10 a day for 12 hours of care
Things haven't always been so dire. When men were shipped off to fight in World War II, women had to go into the factories. All those young children had to go somewhere while their mothers worked, though, and the scant Depression-era centers were overwhelmed. As Chris Herbst, associate professor at Arizona State University, writes, newspapers were flooded with "stories of children locked in cars adjacent to factories, chained to temporary trailer homes, and left in movie theaters."
Lawmakers turned to the Lanham Act, a bill that directed federal wartime funding to build big infrastructure projects like hospitals and sewer systems, and the Act's "public services" provision was reinterpreted to include child care. Communities got money to build and staff a network of child care centers that were available to people of all income levels at heavily subsidized prices, costing just $9 or $10 a day in today's dollars for 12 hours of care. They operated in every state except New Mexico, and the programs ran all day, year round.
Perhaps even more important was the quality of care. With unemployment still relatively high, the centers were able to hire qualified teachers as care providers, and local universities partnered with them to train or retrain the teachers in early childhood education. The target child-to-teacher ratio was just 10 to 1. "These kids, for a couple of years, were artistically, intellectually stimulated. That had lifelong positive consequences," Herbst says. For each $100 increase in spending via the Lanham Act, he found, earnings rose 1.8 percentage points, employment rose 0.7 points, the rate of people getting college degrees rose 1.9 points, and the high-school dropout rate fell by 1.8 points. On all economic and educational measures, children best served by the program far outpaced others, even much later in their lives.
On top of that, the program had long-term effects on women's employment and income, realigning the expectations for women. "Women's employment never went back to the old levels," Herbst says. And parents loved Lanham Act programs. In a series of exit interviews, parents who sent their children to centers in California assessed them almost universally in positive terms.
But the Lanham Act centers came to an end as the war did. As soon as Japan surrendered, President Truman killed the program. It was briefly extended after an uproar from women whose husbands wouldn't be returning for months, but by mid-1946 it was finished. The Leave It to Beaver era began.
The issue of child care wouldn't rear its head again until the late 1960s, as women began to move into the paid workforce in large numbers once again. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had vastly expanded the government's role in the provision of public programs, and child care was an easy extension. "It seemed like a logical next step to many people," Kimberly Morgan, historian and professor at George Washington University, says. Meanwhile, new research started to highlight the importance of the first five years of life on children's mental development.
In the late 1960s, Congress drafted legislation that would have laid the foundation for a national network of child care centers. It also included rigorous standards for the quality of care. There were plenty of moderate Republicans who were in favor of taking action. "It didn't strike people as a particularly radical development," Morgan says. Nixon himself had even supported child care, saying in 1971 that early childhood development was "so critical" that "we must make a national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life."
But outside Congress, vehement opposition fomented. In conservative media circles, critics were "looking at the child care legislation with complete horror," Morgan says. Universally available child care, to them, could be the next Medicare: a dangerous entitlement that would become too popular to undo. Others warned that federally funded child care would lead to government mind control and Soviet-style child-rearing.
The legislation still got votes from both sides of the aisle, and both houses of Congress passed it in 1971, sending it to Nixon's desk. But on December 9, 1971, Nixon issued a veto, warning of the "family-weakening implications," calling it "the most radical piece of legislation to emerge from the Ninety-second Congress." The bill, he said, would "commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach."
Advocates and supporters were shocked. The far-right critiques, which were echoed in the language of Nixon's veto, had lived only on the fringes and never cropped up in Congressional debate. Presidential advisor Pat Buchanan, who wrote much of what ended up in Nixon's veto, is credited with giving voice to the fears of the newly emergent conservative right. And it was these fears that set the tenor of the debate over child care for the next decade.
Attempts to revive the bill during the '70s were beaten back. People on the right were mobilized, and Republicans backed away from the issue. By the mid-'70s advocates gave up entirely. It was "politically toxic to even talk about doing anything on child care," said Morgan.
But women continued to work, and by the mid-'80s, the fact that the country did practically nothing about child care once again became political. In the 1988 presidential race, both Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and Republican George H. W. Bush proposed plans to help with the cost of care. They did photo ops in day care centers.
Once in office, Bush signed the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, which sends money to the states to help defray the cost of care for low-income families. But the passage of that act belied the complicated feelings Congress had toward the issue: It was tacked onto an omnibus budget bill in the midst of intense political squabbling. "It didn't get passed because everybody said, 'Hip hip hooray, we want child care,'" says Sally Cohen, author of Championing Child Care. "It was a quid pro quo."
In the late '80s and throughout the '90s, the fear-mongering began. "Child care got caught up in…all of these scare stories, real horror stories about day care," says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Stories about murderous au pairs and satanic day care workers proliferated. There was "panic over working mothers and panic over day care," she said. Social conservatives teamed up with fiscal conservatives to oppose child care as an issue; working parents felt guilty about leaving their children in order to work.
These messages were aimed at only one part of the population, though. Poor women of color were both shoved into the paid workforce and penalized for staying at home, particularly through the '96 welfare reform bill, which required poor mothers to leave the home and find a job if they wanted welfare. It extended meager assistance for child care.
"We've done this before, and it worked"
President Obama finally approached the issue in his 2013 State of the Union address, pushing for universal preschool. And at a summit at the White House in mid-2014 he referenced the other countries that "do child care well," saying, "this isn't rocket science." In early 2015, a White House economist even highlighted the Lanham Act: "[W]e've done this before, and it worked."
The issue gained momentum in the recent presidential election. Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both put forward progressive plans. Republicans brought up the issue not to bash the family-ruining consequences, but to offer their ideas. President Donald Trump proposed that parents up to a certain income level be able to fully deduct the cost of child care from their taxes. While he hasn't talked much about it since the election, he has promised to push for it in his first 100 days, and his daughter Ivanka has reportedly been calling congressional lawmakers to press them on it.
That marks a huge departure from recent history: Not since George H. W. Bush have Republican candidates talked about this third-rail issue. So what changed? For one thing, the Cold War is over and subsidized child care no longer equals the Soviet state. For another, for all the back-and-forth over the morality of day care, mothers still continued to seek paid work. Today more than 70 percent of women with children under 18 are in the labor force. That became even more apparent during the Great Recession. "It just became impossible to [tell] women that they needed to stay home at a time of rising male unemployment," Warner says.
Research on the impact of high-quality care for young children, meanwhile, has only gotten clearer. Barnett, the National Institute for Early Education Research director, has reviewed more than 100 studies of the effects of high-quality care and found big cognitive gains that last. Doing what we do now, on the other hand—neglecting kids or leaving it up to overworked parents—has concrete disadvantages. "It is certainly possible for poor-quality care to harm kids," Barnett says.
There are benefits for parents, too. Working parents today miss an average of nine days of work a year thanks to inconsistent child care arrangements. Mothers with steady child care are twice as likely to stay in their jobs; one study estimated that if early childhood education were available for all children, their employment would increase by 10 percent.
Child care is an enormous, complex problem: unaffordable costs, low quality, poor wages for providers, and inaccessibility. But the solution doesn't need to be complicated. And, in fact, we already have a model: The Department of Defense provides a system of day care centers with very high quality standards—it earned a B grade from Child Care Aware of America, something no state achieved. Teachers are required to have substantial training and a bachelor's degree, and they earn an average of $15 an hour. The program is heavily subsidized; the lowest-income families pay just $58 per week. The DoD spent about $700 million on military child care and after-school programs in 2015 out of a budget of $496.1 billion.
"I'm kind of like this impossible person who truly believes when there's a will there's a way"
A few months ago, Gonzalez was contacted about two nephews who had been in foster care for nearly a year. She took them in while still attending law school. "I'm kind of like this impossible person who truly believes when there's a will there's a way," she says. She hopes to adopt them when she graduates in 2019.
In the meantime, it's been tough. She and her children were able to get an affordable three-bedroom apartment in Seattle, which she calls "a miracle." But it's cramped. She relies on food banks a lot and goes without when things get tight. "If we don't have toilet paper, okay, there's napkins," she says.
Studying has also been difficult. When she took her midterms over the summer, she didn't get the grades she wanted and contemplated dropping out. "I had the child care so I could go to class, but I didn't have the child care to help me study," she says. "I was feeling just defeated."
But her daughter urged her mother not to give up. "This was a shared dream," Gonzalez says. "Just as much as I want this, she wants it too." Gonzalez earned a 4.0 grade point average for the summer term.
Gonzalez would love to be a lawyer working in the nonprofit world, but she's pretty sure that she wouldn't be able to afford child care. So instead she plans to get a more lucrative job and do pro bono work when she can. Eventually she wants to either become a judge or run for office. "I want to change laws for families and children," she says. "I just want to really make lasting change."
Gonzalez has overcome an endless number of hurdles. But she knows it shouldn't have been so difficult. "I struggle really hard and I work really hard and I have a lot of passion," she says. "But it shouldn't be that a woman can only succeed through struggle and passion."
Bryce Covert is the economics editor for Think Progress.