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The Destructive Hidden Costs Of Child Care

Child care in America is criminally overpriced and out of reach for too many of us. Not only is it driving poverty upward and slashing social mobility, it breaks up families and discourages younger Americans from starting new families.

-by Dr Liam O’Mara IV

The cost of child care in America is obscene and there is no nicer way to say that. Families are being robbed, either of a decent standard of living because of sky-high expenses, or of the ability to have children at all. Increasing numbers of Americans are skipping out on having a family, or breaking up their families due to financial stresses, and we owe it to ourselves to end this destructive cycle.

My mother ran a child care centre out of her house from 1978 until about a year ago, and I grew up with a dozen other kids around. As I matured, I began working for her and with the kids, and got to know many parents in the process, too. I saw their struggles as the cost of care kept rising but wages did not. This had an impact on my political consciousness, and desire for economic justice. Things now are far worse than when I was younger, and we must solve what has become a major brake on opportunity.

Is There Really a Way Out of This Mess?

There is, of course, an easy answer, as with so many other problems we face in this country. Instead of undermining the economic foundations of the working and middle classes, liberals and Democrats need to recover their populist roots and push through reforms that will help the American people.

I know-- shockingly simple, right? Like, what if the government actually gave a damn about us, instead of serving only the billionaires?

Progressives must step up with the solution, and press hard for it against GOP complaints, instead of giving up when it looks too difficult. Make a public case that conservatism is destroying the American family and you’ll pick up the swing votes needed to turn child care into a universal benefit for all, just like public schooling.

The True Cost of Child Care

In the United States for a family making an average income, care for just one child routinely costs 23% of total income. At 25%, the figures are a little worse in California, even with higher average wages. And heaven help you if you have two kids, because the average then shoots up to 42% of total income.

True that there is a lot of variation across the country. If you are lucky enough to live in South Dakota, infant care will cost on average just 11% of your income, as compared with more than 26% in the District of Columbia. Keep in mind, though, that median household income in SD is $30,000 lower than in DC, so the variation is not as beneficial or lucky as it first appears.

Some states have programmes to subsidize the cost of child care for their poorest residents, though these vary a lot in what they’ll pay and in the restrictions placed upon the recipient. But those requirements are themselves an obstacle for many to get ahead. One of the providers with whom I spoke for this article floored me with a couple simple observations.

First, in over twenty years in the business she told me that 60-70% of her clients have been single mothers. I hope that you, dear reader, have noticed that single-parent female-headed households have among the worst income potential of any group. But of the couples for whom she provided child care, only half were married, and many told her they needed to file their taxes separately in order to qualify for public assistance-- without which they could not have afforded child care at all.

Child Care and its Impact on Social Mobility

Let’s consider that last point carefully. Should people be forced to choose between getting married and being able to afford child care? Of course not! What this does is penalize folks for wanting a family. Housing and child care are far too expensive, especially given pay rates which have not kept up with inflation for decades. We are making people choose between a decent living standard and a family, and in a country this rich, I say that is unjust.

In addition, we have the basic question of public welfare. How often does the right complain that welfare recipients should go to work, or work more hours? A lot, yes? Okay, now consider how doing so affects one’s living standards: If you get a better job, and lose eligibility for a child care subsidy, you may find that every extra dollar you make goes into child care and transport to work. This eliminates all benefit from that labour, both to you and to the economy.

The stingy benefits in this country have created a system whereby the poor cannot get ahead without a whole lot of luck. By contrast, those societies with more generous public benefits find they are used less consistently. This is because instead of a safety net, such folks experience more of a trampoline effect. When the poor are given enough assistance to climb out of poverty, they break their dependence and become a net producer. The US is down to 27th place in social mobility, in large part due to this stinginess.

How the Cost of Child Care is Destroying American Families

Now let’s look harder at the consequences of this poverty-childcare nexus. If having a family means choosing between a decent standard of living or falling into poverty, it’s hard to blame many for skipping the joys of parenthood. While the policies that create this binary choice come from the right, so too does a barrage of toxic culture war rhetoric which shames people for abortions and decries the declining birthrate among the non-migrant population.

(And yes, fertility is a social class issue, with lower-income women five times as likely to experience unintended pregnancy, with decreased access both to contraception and abortion further limiting social mobility.)

The American right hammers people with complaints about both immigration and fertility rates, then refuses the public benefits which would make it easier for more people to have a family. They seem to want it both ways-- belching up far-right rhetoric about the family that’s lifted right out of the fascist repertoire, while continuing to serve right-libertarian masters in the oligarchy by cutting social spending. The effect is disproportionately harmful to families of colour, a point made repeatedly by Daniel Lucks in his study of Republican strategy since the 1960s.

As with the rising cost of housing and health care, the inability to afford child care is doing three things: It is causing immense financial stress within families, which breaks up partnerships. It is lowering our standard of living, forcing ever more into poverty and debt, and virtually eliminating social mobility for those who choose to have a family. And it is discouraging others from even attempting to start one.

In short, Republican and conservative policies are destroying American families, even as their rhetoric claims they are the champions of ‘family values’. It’s time we called bullshit on that claim.

The System Hurts the Providers, Too!

One of the providers with whom I spoke for this piece has been on both sides of the cost issue. She was asked to help a family member who was struggling medically by watching a nephew, and became stuck with out of pocket medical costs for the child which pushed her for a while into the welfare system. Picking up the child one day from a babysitter, she was appalled to see children playing unsupervised in the front yard whilst the sitter watched soap operas inside. In response, she took out a loan and started her own business.

As a child care provider, she quickly ran into some unfortunate realities. The lack of any centralized system for support to providers meant that there was no way to take a day off. If she got sick, she had to shut down for the day,

forcing parents to take a day off from work themselves or scramble to find someone else to watch their child. And having a permanent assistant who can fill in was prohibitively expensive, as she explained that the costs added up to more than what the provider could keep of her income.

These points were echoed by another of the providers with whom I spoke. She said that you “can’t take days off”, and it’s “hard to have back-up when you get sick” because of state requirements on training, fingerprinting, and the like. If you get sick or have to go to a doctor’s appointment, you need to close down, and then “where do those kids go?”, she asked.

The Strain on Families and a Declining Safety Net

But hardest hit are the parents forced to sacrifice an ever larger share of their total income just for the privilege of being able to work outside the home. One of the parents I interviewed for this article made a great point about family structure and generational change. The Baby Boomers had far more advantages relative to GenX, the Millennials, and so on, and many have been able to retire somewhat comfortably. But instead of being able to travel and enjoy that time, they are being used more and more for child care by their children, who are struggling to afford the exorbitant cost. My own mother has found herself in this trap, spending many a week caring for my brother’s children.

What happens, this parent asked, when the Boomers are gone? Fewer members of GenX will be able to retire well, or at all. At the same age (35), GenXers held less than half the wealth that Boomers did at that point in their lives. This disparity means that many will not be able to fulfil the same function in their own children’s lives – unable to fill in as care providers, because they are still working outside the home well past their parents’ retirement age.

That same parent said that she’s seen people of her generation move into much worse neighbourhoods than those in which they grew up, just to be able to afford child care. We are witnessing significant downward mobility in generational success, and the cost of housing, health care, education, and child care, all play a part in that. GenX was the first in American history not to exceed the outcome of the preceding group, and the Millennials are much worse off. This situation is unsustainable, and is eroding the possibilities for Millennial families across the country.

Sometimes it’s Not Your Fault (Sometimes You Need Help)

Another of the parents with whom I spoke told me a story that may sound familiar to many readers. Facing the end of her marriage, she was forced to care for her daughter and herself alone, which meant finding both a job and child care. At one point in her struggle to get on her feet she worked three different jobs at once, none of which offered help for child care. The difficulty of making ends meet forced her onto food stamps for a year and a half.

She argued that help for child care, like help for food stamps, isn’t a “hand-out”. Sometimes you just need a leg up, a quick assist, to get yourself going again. If that support isn’t there, you can quickly fall so far that you’ll never pull back out of poverty and dependence on public assistance. Friends told her that she should drop out of the workforce and stay home with her child. But how would that help? The United States already has lower working-age female labour force participation than comparable countries – several points lower than other OECD countries, in fact.

A tax credit at the end of the year doesn’t do a damned bit of good if you have to pay that bill right now! So why do we make it so hard to pay for child care? The present funding system keeps too many single parents out of the workforce, because the pay just can’t match the costs incurred to work. Recently I came across a social media post where someone described dropping out of productive employment because the cost for child care added up to $15 an hour and she made only $17 an hour.

Everyone Else is Doing it-- Why Can’t We?

Nonsense like that above is self-defeating for a society. This must be why so many other rich countries offer child care funding, whether full or partial, to everyone as a right. In the United States, on average, child care costs more than half of a single parent’s income. In Austria, it is capped at no more than 4% of income, and is totally free for children under six (the most expensive age bracket in the US).

How is it that countries far less rich than the US can afford to help their whole society, and economy, with such a simple idea? That’s easy enough to answer-- their governments are not bought and paid for by the super-rich, who want to skirt paying taxes. When Americans finally decide they deserve a decent standard of living, they’ll stop defending oligarchs, and demand better for themselves and their children.


Childcare is a plank in the platforms of most of the Blue America-endorsed candidates. Shervin Aazami, who just had his first child during this campaign, is running for a seat in the San Fernando Valley and he could have been speaking for most of them when he told me last night that he "couldn’t agree more with Liam’s message. Child care coverage is both an economic and racial justice issue. As a new father, my wife and I are learning more and more about the obscene costs of child care. It’s inexcusable how lack of coverage straddles countless working families with debt and puts them in a position of having to choose between paying for child care or paying for food or rent. No one in America should be living in poverty. Our campaign proudly supports child care coverage, universal pre-K, paid family leave, and living wages tied to regional cost of living. These are the bailouts working people need across our country, and we must elect progressive advocates who will get these necessary policies enacted."

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