By Adam Sotak, Public Engagement Director
Since becoming a parent (I have three young children ages six, three, and one), I have gained a much deeper appreciation of the strength that parents and other caregivers have in the face of adversity, particularly when faced with seemingly insurmountable financial obstacles. These come in many forms: everything from medical bills, the loss of a job, car trouble and all things in-between. For poor and low-income families, these types of expenses hit especially hard, and the ingenuity and perseverance of parents in those situations is often heroic.
One of the most common financial strains for low- and middle-income families is the cost of high-quality child care. For my own family, it comes down to balancing the need for quality child care with balancing the checkbook. It’s an ongoing process that has taken us through a variety of providers and schedule combinations that shared calendars were made for.
I’ve found this to be a unifying topic of distress among my set of acquaintances; mostly middle-class, educated families with two-wage earners who spend more on child care than on their mortgage. Sometimes even double their mortgage. Needless to say, the impact of child care costs for families in poverty and near poverty is far greater.
On average child care is significantly more expensive than college tuition at a public university. In fact, according to a recent study by Child Care Aware, “In North Carolina, a year of center-based care for an infant is over 38% more expensive than a year of public college tuition in the state.” They also found that in North Carolina, the average annual cost of full-time care for two children (an infant and 4-year old) is $16,847. For most families, it’s their most significant expense. Of course, the less income a family makes then the greater the percentage of their income is spent on child care. At average unsubsidized child care center rates, a married family with two children at the poverty level would spend 70 percent of their income on child care costs!
So, what to do? At the very least we need to significantly expand our state’s investment in our early education system, with a focus on increasing access to subsidies for families who cannot afford quality child care but who also cannot afford to lose their jobs. But that is just a first step. If we really want to build the foundation for our youngest children to thrive, we need to see early education as part of North Carolina’s existing public education system with its focus on universal access to learning and development. This would dramatically increase academic success and improve economic opportunity for families statewide.
We’re already far behind other industrialized countries when it comes to child care benefits. In fact, a 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that two-earner families in the U.S. pay more than double for child care than many other countries, including Germany, Australia, and France. There have been limited attempts in the past to create a universal child care system here in the U.S. and in fact, during World War II, such a program existed due mainly to the government’s urgent need for women in work force combined with fervent defense industry support. “Families were eligible for child care for up to six days a week, including summers and holidays, and parents paid the equivalent of just $9-$10 a day in today’s dollars. During the less than 10-year run, these government-run daycare centers served more than 100,000 children from families of all incomes.’’
Here in North Carolina, we need to increase funding for our nationally renowned NC Pre-K program and increase the availability of child care subsidies for low-income families. As of April 2016, there were over 20,000 children on a waiting list for child care assistance and thousands more waiting for a slot in NC Pre-K.
Some forward thinking and family-friendly businesses are getting in on the act, creating child care packages for their employees that ultimately serve the employer well in terms of less lost family leave time and greater employee job satisfaction.
It’s time for North Carolina policymakers to double down on supporting the parents working hard to give their children the best future possible. To make that happen, parents must band together to demand action on this issue that has such a broad impact on families’ financial well-being and the future of our state. By working together, we can create a more accessible and robust child care system for the next generation. That would be heroic.