How Unaffordable Is Child Care for Low-Income Parents?

A bunch of things got me wondering about child care costs. How unaffordable are they for low-income parents who don’t have the benefit of subsidies?

The annual survey reports by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies are the best source of data on affordability I’ve found.

So I pulled figures from the latest report — most of them for 2009. Then did some calculations of my own — or more precisely, told Excel to do them.

Here’s a summary of key results, plus some Google gleanings about impacts.

Single Mothers Earning the Median

Single-mother families have average incomes significantly lower than families with two parents present. So I began my number crunching with them.

Lots of figures to enter. So I stuck with the costs of center-based care. It’s generally more expensive than care in a home setting, but also more frequently used.

NACCRA gives us breakouts for the median income of single-mother families in each state and the District of Columbia. Also the cost of care for infants and for four year olds as a percent of the median income .

Say a single mother needed child care for one of each. In 20 states and the District, she’d have had to pay more than two-thirds of her income if she earned the median.

Even in the lowest-cost states, nearly half her income would have had to go for child care.

In 30 states and the District, child care for only an infant would have consumed at least a third of her income.

Minimum Wage Workers

Things get worse, of course, for minimum wage workers — even if they work full time, year round, as many don’t.

But say we’ve got a minimum wage worker who does. In 26 states and the District, his/her entire pretax income would have been less than the costs of child care for the infant and four year old.*

Costs of care for the infant alone would have consumed more than half the full-time, year round minimum wage in 33 states and the District — and more than two-thirds in 14 states, plus the District.

Child care was unaffordable even for families with two full-time, year round minimum wage workers. For the two kids, they would have had to pay more than half their gross income in 27 states and the District.

In only one state — Mississippi — would they have had as much as two-thirds of their income for everything else a family needs.

So What’s a Poor Parent to Do?

According to the latest (not very recent) figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 39% of poor children eligible for federally-funded child care subsidies received them in 2006.

Eligibility here means that they were under 13, unless they had special needs. And their parents were either working or participating in education or training activities.

An additional 23% of eligible children in families with incomes between 101% and 150% of the federal poverty line also received child care subsidies.

Which leaves us with some 38% of poor and near-poor children whose parents worked — or were working toward work — without subsidized care.

As the National Women’s Law Center observes, some parents can rely on their parents or other relatives for child care. Somewhat more low-income parents than others do. But for a variety of reasons, many can’t.

And, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, many can’t afford child care at market rates. So what do they do?

Some, mostly moms, choose not to work. Better financially to have one parent out there earning and the other at home with the kids.

Others work part-time or in shifts, barely seeing each other awake for days on end.

And single mothers?

Some of them also decide they can’t go on working. They turn — or return — unwillingly to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It’s a stopgap solution because TANF is time-limited. But it solves the child care problem for awhile.

One homeless mother says she worked nights while her kids slept in the car parked where she could keep an eye on them.

Surely we could do better for children, their parents and our economy. To say this would involve some reordering of priorities in Congress is an understatement.

* The federal minimum wage increased by 50 cents an hour in July 2009. This produced minimum wage increases in most states and the District. For my calculations, I used the post-increase rate.

7 Responses to How Unaffordable Is Child Care for Low-Income Parents?

  1. [...] up my post on child care costs, I remarked that we’d need a reordering of priorities in Congress to make [...]

  2. [...] As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observes, households with gross incomes above the regular 130% food stamp cut-off often have disposable incomes, i.e., money they can spend on things like food, that fall below the line after deductions for costs they must pay in order to work — notably child care. [...]

  3. [...] Many are also left out in the 23 states that won’t provide benefits for workers who are looking for a new job that isn’t full time. We know anecdotally that single mothers may have no alternative because they can’t afford the high costs of child care. [...]

  4. [...] One Head Start director warns that parents may have to quit their jobs to tend to their children — not unlikely, since unsubsidized child care can cost more than they earn. [...]

  5. […] child care can make an important difference as well. But it’s inordinately costly for low-income parents who don’t have vouchers to subsidize it, as most apparently […]

  6. […] good jobs. Or to make high-quality child care affordable for those who’d still have to pay a big chunk of their wages for care at market […]

  7. […] work part time for “non-economic reasons.” These can include an inability to afford what child care would cost if they had to rely on it for more than eight hours a day, five days a […]

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