The challenge to afford quality child care

Studies continue to show the benefits of quality early childhood education, but access to these programs is often limited by family income. A report from Child Care Aware details these costs from across all 50 states.

One of the report’s major findings is that child care exceeds most other costs for families. In fact, in 40 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost of center-based infant care exceeded 10 percent of the state’s median income for a two-parent family. The report also notes the cost of child care compared to other education costs. In 35 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for center-based care for an infant was higher than year’s in-state tuition and related fees at a four-year public college.

While costs are often difficult for families to meet, single parents especially struggle to pay for child care. In many cases, the average cost of child care is far out of reach for a single parent. Among the 50 states, the annual cost of center-based infant care averaged 38 percent of the state median income for a single mother. The annual cost of center-based care for a 4-year-old child averaged 31 percent of the state median income for a single mother.

In Washington, the average annual costs are $10,920 to send an infant to a center and $8,320 to send a four-year-old to a center, ranking the state 12th most expensive for infant care and 29th most expensive for four-year-old care. These upper and middle rankings in cost are reflected in comparisons to other costs in this state. For example, it is 15 percent more expensive to send a four-year-old to a child care center than it is to send a student to the state’s average four-year public university. Child care costs are equivalent to nearly 13 percent of the average Washington family of four’s income and are almost as high as the average mortgage payment in the state.

It is no surprise that with these costs, the report found that some parents are removing their children from licensed programs to informal child care settings to better make ends meet. Given the tremendous impact quality care has on children’s long-term development and success in school, the report suggests that the “current approach to [funding and supporting] child care is not sufficient with today’s goals to ensure that children in low-income families, especially those receiving public funding, are in quality care and to ensure that all children start school ready to learn.”

The report concludes that “parent choice in child care is a national policy objective. But, when the only choice parents have is among poor quality settings, that is not a real choice.”

Read the full report here (PDF).

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