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Why is child care so expensive? Costs leave Washington-area millennials hesitant to have kids

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Abamu, Jenny
Publication Date: 
9 Apr 2019


When it came time for Kristina and Jason Salguero to send their son Austin to daycare, they were shocked to learn that it could cost as much as it would to send him to college. They enrolled Austin, but decided to put off their plans to have a second child.

“It’s like they don’t want us to have children,” Kristina says.

The Salgueros searched extensively before they found the KidStop Child Development Center in Rockville, Maryland, which Austin now attends.

It’s clear that he’s popular there. On a recent morning, kids stopped playing and shouted greetings to Austin as his parents brought him to the red, blue and yellow KidStop building.

Inside, the clean classrooms have cubbies for each child’s belongings. The kids’ drawings hang on the walls.

KidStop can cost up to $2,000 a month, depending on a child’s age. And this is considered affordable, quality child care in Montgomery County. Many families consider these midrange prices.

“I think it is absurd that today daycare is so expensive,” says Jason Salguero, who works as a digital marketing database developer. “I just wonder how our parents did it. It just feels like it was a more prosperous time for the middle class than it is now.”

What the Salgueros are going through is typical for many middle-class millennials. Together, their salaries sit comfortably within six figures. But they won’t be able to afford daycare for a second child until Austin is in school full-time.

“An infant would be $2,000 a month plus his after-school care is going to be $600 a month. That’s much more than rent,” Kristina says.

The $2,600 would be about a fifth of the Salgueros’ monthly income. And they would still need to pay for rent, groceries, utilities and other household costs.

“Some parents just decide that that’s just going to be the biggest part of their budget. They got to go to work. They don’t really have choices,” says Dionne Dobbins, the senior director of research at Child Care Aware of America. Her center has been studying the cost of child care for years and advocating for government support.

“These are people making six figures, and you would think that they wouldn’t have trouble finding child care. But when it’s taking 13 percent and 14 percent of your salary to pay for one child and 22 to 24 percent to pay for more than one child, that’s a lot coming out of your paycheck,” Dobbins says.

Family Network. And across the region, costs are similarly high. In Washington, D.C. the estimated child care cost for an infant in a family child care home and a preschooler in a child care center is $35,394 according to Child Care Aware of America. In Arlington, Virginia, the cost is $33,817.

Child care is regulated differently state by state but the average cost of care in the U.S. varies between $9,000 and $9,600, according to Child Care Aware America. 

Child care costs in Montgomery County are among the highest in Maryland, according to the Maryland

And as a percentage of median income for families of four, the cost of child care in Maryland is just as high.

‘It’s An Expensive Business’

Child care providers say the cost of staying in business is high, and they have to pass that costs on to customers.

“The expectation of the equipment, supplies, materials that we have in the classroom and that we have to restock and resupply. And then just regular upkeep, maintenance. And then the menu. That also factors into it,” says KidStop director Sylvia Moreo, speaking about her center’s expenses. “We offer all meals and snacks, and of course we want to offer the best fresh and whole foods. It’s expensive.”

“It was a windowless basement. It had nine kids with one caretaker… We just didn’t get the confidence that it was a safe place.”

Moreno says the biggest expense is the staff. Salaries take up about 60 percent of the budget. And a large staff is non-negotiable. Maryland state law says one adult can’t look after more than three infants. But that doesn’t mean child care workers are well-paid. The average annual salary for a child care center teacher in Maryland is $25,203, according to the Maryland Family Network. 

Kristina has found cheaper home-based options for care, but decided they weren’t the right fit. A friend recommended one that charged only $200 a week.

“It was a windowless basement. It had nine kids with one caretaker,” she says. “There were two infants and the rest were older children. But we just didn’t get the confidence that it was a safe place.”

Kristina also considered sharing a nanny with other parents, but she worried about trying to match schedules and making sure others wouldn’t drop out.

Lawmakers Put Child Care Costs On The Ballot

Concerns about unaffordable child care aren’t limited to this region, though the high cost of living here can make the situation more dire for parents. Some presidential candidates have put forward plans for affordable child care. And lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at cutting costs over the years.

D.C., for instance, has free full-day pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds. For low-income families, programs like Head Start can offset costs. But Dobbins says there’s still a lack of support for middle-income families.

And multiple researchers say these high costs have an adverse effect on the overall economy, particularly when parents choose to leave the workforce.

“In Maryland, in particular, we know that it is about $2.4 billion dollars that businesses lose when parents are absent because of child care crises.”

“The impact on the entire country in terms of our economics is $57 billion dollars in losses,” Dobbins says. “And in Maryland, in particular, we know that it is about $2.4 billion dollars that businesses lose when parents are absent because of child care crises.”

Child care advocates are hopeful things will get easier. In Maryland lawmakers recently raised the threshold for child care subsidies so now a family of four making about $71,525 a year can receive support. There’s also a lively debate in Montgomery County about expanding pre-kindergarten programs.

But for families like Kristina and Jason Salguero the clock is ticking. They are making major life-changing decisions about the size of their family. And those choices hinge on the cost of child care.

Entered Date: 
10 Apr 2019
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