Every week, nearly 12 million children under the age of five are in some type of child care setting in the United States, according to a report entitled We Can Do Better: NACCRRA’s Ranking of State Child Care Center Standards and Oversight. (The NACCRRA, or National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, is the nation’s leading voice for child care.) With this large and still growing participation in the nation’s child care programs, the high cost of care has become a significant problem for many families.
Understandably, parents want the best care for their children and are now seeking out child care centers which are licensed by state and federal governments. Improving these centers so they meet the criteria to be licensed costs money, which, in turn, raises the cost of care for individual families. Because of such cost increases, many families are unable to afford care for their children from these licensed centers and end up sacrificing quality of care for affordability.
Today, more and more families are relying on friends and relatives to care for their children. These care-givers—or more properly, babysitters—don’t have the knowledge or training necessary to provide activities which help with young children’s mental, physical and emotional development. This could be crucial, as We Can Do Better notes that, statistically, 90 percent of brain development occurs between birth and age five, making early childhood a critical time for development in all aspects of life.
According to Peoria YWCA Development Director Kristen Berchtold, “Children begin learning right from birth, and their earliest years set the foundation for growth and development for the rest of their lives. It is crucial to future school and life success that children are cared for in a healthy, safe, nurturing and stimulating environment.” This same conclusion was noted in NACCRRA’s Parents and the High Price of Child Care report. High-quality care is said to help “children enter school ready to learn.”
But the licensed centers which provide high-quality care are being forced to raise their prices as the costs of running operations go up. And families should not assume that these inflated prices translate into raises for the teachers who work there, as this is rarely the case. Early childhood educators earn an average wage of $8.78 an hour and are in one of the worst-paying career tracks in the country. It seems that some of the most influential people in our children’s lives are also the least rewarded. Thankfully, they love their jobs and the kids more than compensation!
According to The High Price of Child Care: Parents are Often Forced to Choose Between Quality and Cost, the national average cost of full-time care in a licensed center is $14,650 per year for an infant and $10,920 for a four-year-old. On a local level, in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties, the average cost of full-time care in a licensed center is $9,989 for an infant and $7,003 for a four-year- old, according to data compiled by Ginny Everett, parent services coordinator of Illinois Central College Childcare Connections. This seems like a much lower number, but keep in mind that the cost of living in central Illinois is not nearly as high as it is elsewhere—in the Northeast or on the West coast, for example.
In an article published in the New York Times last October, Gail Collins states that “it’s becoming virtually impossible to support a middle-class American family on one parent’s salary,” necessitating the use of child care centers for many families. In the same article, Linda Smith, executive director of NACCRRA says, “The cost of child care is out of reach for too many families. No parent should have to choose a poor-quality child care setting just because they cannot afford or find anything better for their child. It’s time to increase our public investment in improving the quality of child care.”
Many parents and child care supporters alike are petitioning for public funding of early childhood care. Collins says that “right now, the only parents who routinely get serious childcare assistance from the government are extremely poor mothers in welfare-to-work programs. Even for them, the waiting lists tend to be ridiculously long.”
At the Peoria YWCA, the directors of its child care programs have noticed that the income levels of low-income families have not kept up with general inflation. They firmly believe that “quality child care should be within the financial reach of each and every family,” according to Berchtold. Because of this strong belief, the YWCA has actively sought funding from outside sources to increase the quality of its programs without raising the cost to families. They are currently partnering with the Regional Office of Education to offer two state-funded Preschool for All classrooms. Last year, the YWCA received a grant from the Illinois Facilities Fund to renovate its facilities. The Illinois Department of Human Services offers another source of funding, with subsidies for child care to low-income families who are working or attending school. These funds can be accessed through Child Care Connection, a local child care information, resource and referral organization. For families who do not fall in the “low-income” group, the YWCA offers scholarships which reduce the cost of care.
As the price of child care rises faster than inflation, parents are forced to make difficult decisions in terms of what child care they can afford. Most parents who participated in NACCRRA focus groups in 2006 agreed that money set aside for public education should also go towards paying for quality care for young children, even if that requires an increase in taxes by $10 to $50 a year.
The NACCRRA report puts the cost of child care in perspective by relating it to other items in an average American household budget:
- In every region of the united States, average child care fees for an infant are higher than the average amount that families spend on food.
- In every region, child care fees for two children at any age exceed the median rent cost, and are nearly as high or even higher than the average monthly mortgage payment.
- In every region, the average annual price for child care for an infant in a child care center is higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a public college.
“When it comes to child care, families should no longer have to sacrifice quality for affordability. Access to high-quality child care should not be a dream, but a reality. High-quality child care should be accessible and available for all children.” While the conclusion of this report is agreed upon by most, if not all, readers, making the necessary changes to reach this end will not be easy. TPW