How Did We End Up With A Child Care System That Serves Absolutely No One?

by Korey Lane

Parenting is political, whether we're talking about the affordability of child care, access to paid family leave, or the controversial movement for school choice. Denying that mothers care about these issues is both incorrect — they actually care more once they have kids — and dangerous; 16 million millennial women had become mothers by January 2017, and millennial women were responsible for 82 percent of births in 2015, according to Pew Research. Removing mothers — who are also voters — from discussions about health care and education denies them a place in conversations that directly affect them and their children.

That's why Romper's Swing Vote series examines timely political issues relevant to young women with kids. Each story is approached through a bipartisan lens with the goal of investigating how the issue is relevant to mothers and what they need to know to get more involved in the systems that affect them and their children.

Jasmine Simon, a 26-year-old mom, loves the time she gets to spend with her 2-year-old daughter, Jaelyn, during the day, but she is usually exhausted. She's a full-time student hoping to become a wedding and events planner once she gets her bachelor's degree. She takes classes in the afternoons and evenings, works the graveyard shift as a bartender, and then comes home in the morning around 9 a.m. to watch Jaelyn until her parents get home from work and she can rest before class. "When I get off, she is wide awake ready to play, and I am usually tired, ready to fall asleep," Simon says. The rising costs of child care means daycare or a sitter would cost her up to $100 per day in Las Vegas, where she lives, so she avoids it. Instead she forces herself to stay awake.

Simon isn't unique. All across the United States, families are struggling to pay for child care and making extraordinary sacrifices in their careers, long-term financial security, and day-to-day wellbeing just to make sure someone is watching their kids. The median American parent spends 20 percent of their monthly household income on child care, a situation that hits minority families hardest. The quality of the child care available is often not great, workers are paid poorly, and daycare owners still have trouble breaking even. What's strange about this multi-faceted problem is how little is being done about it. Universal, federally-funded child care legislation has not been proposed since 1971. The child care bill currently proposed has not moved forward despite having more than 100 cosponsors, and the Trump administration's solution — an increase in the child and dependent care tax credit — will mostly benefit more affluent families. Meanwhile, parents, kids, teachers, and providers are struggling in ways people without kids may never consider.

Jessica Raven runs a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. For Raven, a thriving career with a competitive salary wasn't enough to offset the increasingly stifling costs of child care, something she learned the hard way when she had to leave a higher paying, more demanding job at a different, international non-profit to cut down on what she was spending each month on daycare for her son, Max. By switching to a job with more flexible hours when Max was 2 years old, Raven was able to stay home with him during the day and save money on a babysitter.

"I was making $55,000 when I struggled the most and left my job for a lower paying job with more flexible hours," Raven tells Romper. At her new job, Raven makes $45,000 per year. But even her new role, leading an organization that mobilizes the D.C. community to end public harassment and assault, didn't make Raven more able to afford child care. "I'm the executive director of a small but very visible nonprofit, and I feel like no one realizes or expects that I was also babysitting on the side last year just to be able to pay rent."

Jessica Raven and her son Max, relaxing. Photo courtesy of Jessica Raven.

Raven's salary, which in most areas would comfortably support a family of two, doesn't stretch as far in Washington D.C., where the average rent for a two bedroom apartment starts at $2,900, compared to a national average of $1,377. Raven ended up spending close to $1,400 per month on child care at her old job. "Now that Max is in preschool, I'm still working a lot of nights and weekends, but I'd estimate I spend ~$500 per month on childcare (for work purposes, at least), which feels like a steal after all that I went through from ages 0-3," she says.

The financial struggle of parents like Raven is well documented. In 2017, a site that connects users with caregivers for hire, and New America, a think tank founded in 1999 that brainstorms progressive policy ideas, delivered The Care Report, an extensive document outlining the challenges of the current child care system, how we got here, and proposing solutions. According to the report, the cost of full-time daycare for children under 4 is 85 percent of the median monthly rent in the U.S. Median rent and, on average, comes to $9,589 annually, more than the cost of in-state tuition at a four-year college in 33 states.

We also know for a fact that these costs hit minority families the hardest. African-American and Hispanic households spend 12 percent and 11 percent of their budgets on child care, respectively, while white households spend about 10 percent, according to a 2017 report from the Boston College School of Social Work. The reasons for that are plenty; for example, many minority families need child care during abnormal hours, mostly due to the fact that parents work hourly, shift-based jobs and can't negotiate their schedules like many other parents can. And, many minority families have to travel farther to get to safe child care because they can't afford to live in neighborhoods with safe, quality child care.

Having good, affordable child care has far-reaching effects. According to a 2015 White House report titled The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, "Access to high-quality care for young children can help parents increase their employment and earnings. Parents who have child care options are better able to work, and to work more hours.” In other words, affordable child care is essential to upward mobility, and because they have less access to that care, families of color have disproportionately less mobility.

There are assistance programs in place. The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 allocates a certain amount of federal money to each state for child care. States distribute vouchers to families within a certain income bracket to use at providers that meet criteria determined by the state. But families run into two problems with the current grant. The first is that only families making less than $1,400 per week (with one child) are eligible. “I saw the requirements online [for assistance] and learned that I was ineligible to apply," Raven says. She made too much money to receive government assistance but not enough to provide for Max and herself while also paying for daycare.

The second problem is that when the block grant money runs out, it runs out. As a result, qualified families who don't receive a voucher, along with families whose income falls just above the program max, are left still staring down costs that make it almost impossible to get by.

So why is child care so expensive? For starters, the cost of running a quality child care center is mind-boggling, especially for smaller, privately owned daycares.

Brenna Karis, 28, is a former nanny who opened her own daycare in September 2016, fulfilling a longterm dream. Her in-home facility, Karis Family Daycare in Los Angeles, currently serves 12 children and has five employees. She needed $30,000 to start the business, most of which she obtained in the form of a personal bank loan.

The costs mounted from there. Because she couldn't afford to buy a home in her area, she has rent to cover, and she's still paying off her student loans, in addition to the note on the loan she took out to start the business. Aside from that, her biggest expense is paying her employees. "That's something that I am paying a little bit more for that I probably could cut back on," Karis tells Romper, "but I think it makes it a little bit easier for me running it," and more staff allows her to provide a level of care that will build her reputation.

Many parents' only recourse is to look ahead to when their babies are no longer babies.

To offset her costs, she charges $1,770 a month for infants and $1,330 for toddlers, which she says is on par with what chain centers near her charge but pricier than other local home daycares (she expects some of the more experienced in-home providers in her area own their homes, so they don't have rent payments). Karis is aware of the financial burden she's passing on to the families she serves. Her clientele is upper middle class, she says, "but even they have their own struggles with how much they're paying, especially if you have more than one kid."

Karis has managed to stay on course financially so far but says that's in large part due to a financial support system that many home providers don't have. "I rely a lot on my boyfriend who I live with, who makes better money than me," she says. "I don't think I would have been able to do this if I didn't have him."

In several Facebook groups she belongs to, more seasoned daycare owners air their grievances about how little they are rewarded for a job they genuinely care about. "I see a lot of people who are frustrated with the profits, or just kind of burnt out," Karis says.

That is a common experience for day care owners, says Katie Hamm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, another progressive think tank, and co-author of "A Blueprint for Child Care Reform," yet another 2017 report on the state of child care in the United States. "Most providers are operating on what parents can afford to pay, and it's often not enough to support that provider and make sure that she is paid a living wage," Hamm tells Romper.

Victoria Warnken/Romper

As a result, many daycares fold, and prospective providers are deterred from entering the business. "That's a big issue in L.A. at least," Karis says. "More people are really having trouble just finding programs, there's not a lot available. I think that's probably because it is so expensive for providers to start."

So even if families can afford to put their child in a care center, there might not be one near them. Hamm's report found that in eight states studied, 42 million people live in what’s known as “child care deserts,” which are essentially just what they sound like: an area, or zip code, with no viable child care option present, or not enough options available for the number of children who live there.

Some daycares survive by cutting costs. As a result, many are places you wouldn't want to leave your kid. When she was looking for affordable daycare options in Washington D.C., Raven found one for $250 a week but just couldn't picture leaving Max there. “There were no windows,” she says.

All states require daycares of a certain size that are eligible for federal block grant money to be licensed, but states have discretion in deciding what's required to get a license and whether to make exceptions. For example, seven states don't require daycares affiliated with religious institutions to be licensed. Hamm says this system can give parents a false sense of security. "I think a lot of parents assume that no matter what the child care setting is, somebody has been in there to monitor that and inspect it just as a building gets inspected or a hospital or restaurant," she says. "It's not always true."

At a daycare where Simon used to leave her daughter [occasionally], she once decided to hang around after drop-off to observe the teacher. What she saw wasn't exactly reassuring. "The teacher was talking really firmly to the children," she says. "It didn't even seem like she wanted to be there."

She may not have. The tight profit margins in the industry mean worker pay is incredibly low, making it difficult to attract and retain qualified talent. "It's a losing battle," Marsha*, a 33-year-old Texas teacher who spent several years working for a national chain of preschools and child care centers, tells Romper. "Parents demand a low adult-to-child ratio, but child care centers can't afford to maintain their facility upkeep and pay their many employees decently." Marsha isn't a mother, but she's been around enough struggling parents and teachers to know that the problem is complex.

"Assistant teachers usually made $8-10 an hour, with more pay going to the [teachers of] older kids" because people assume older children require more academic teaching, she explains. A report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley confirms this, as it found that child care workers in all settings, on average, are earning less than $10 an hour, while the cost of getting an education to work in a child care center is no less than $9,000. "When I was a lead pre-kindergarten teacher, my pay was $13 an hour. I had to bargain to get that. Even though I had a bachelor's degree and had taught in public schools previously," she says. Today Marsha is still teaching early education, but for a private school with a rock-solid reputation for fair pay and parental involvement.

"If we pay teachers a pittance, we pay early-childhood teachers and workers nothing," she says. "[It's] worth it to pay the people caring and educating your young babies and children a wage worthy of this formidable and important responsibility."

The alternative, of course, is private child care, which is unregulated but allows parents to get more coverage and providers to set hourly rates for themselves that are more livable. But higher wages don't always translate to higher quality.

Alexandra Haas turned to to find child care for her daughter, Evelyn, after her birth in June 2012, when she had to return to her full-time teaching job at a high school in Southaven, Mississippi. "I had toured some commercial daycares, and they were really depressing," Haas tells Romper. "It was hard enough just to leave her every morning, and I wanted her to be in a family atmosphere and the commercial daycares seemed kind of cold and very plastic."

Victoria Warnken/Romper describes itself as "the largest service helping American families find high-quality carers" on its website, though it does note that " does not verify the identity of, or information posted by, care seekers or carers." Haas hired three different nannies through One ended up moving away, but the other two quit after Evelyn choked while they were bottle-feeding her. "She turned blue and was choking," Haas says. Haas thought there was something wrong with Evelyn until she read that if you hold a bottle at the wrong angle while feeding a baby air can build up around the nozzle and then cause the child to choke.

"It was a terrible feeling to have to leave my child with someone who I knew wasn’t super qualified, but I had no other option," Haas says. "I had to do what I had to do."

Over the next few years Haas cycled through care providers while she and her husband moved to Austin, Texas, and she went back to school to receive a master's degree in public health. When Evelyn was old enough for preschool, Haas and her husband made $300 too much each month to qualify for free preschool, and private preschools in her area cost more than $1,000 per month, making them unaffordable. So Haas made a trade: she took a volunteer grant-writing position at an expensive preschool in addition to working her full-time job at the university where she was getting her master's. In exchange, her daughter got to attend the preschool. She says the preschool often made unreasonable demands and once reprimanded her for taking a call related to her paid, full-time job.

"They were really taking advantage of the fact that I was a mom who really wanted care for her daughter but I couldn’t afford it," Haas says of the preschool. "They knew that I was someone who was willing to do whatever it takes for my daughter to be able to give her the preschool experience."

Despite all of the evidence that the current child care system isn't working for families, providers, or educators, legislators have done very little to change it.

As the New America Care Report points out, the last time lawmakers introduced universal child care legislation was in 1971, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. The act was written in order to put together a network of day care centers across the United States that would be all federally subsidized, according to Jennifer Ludden at NPR. However, the bill was ultimately vetoed by President Richard Nixon after he decided to oppose "committing, without wide national debate, 'the vast moral authority of the national Government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing over against the family-centered approach,'" according to The New York Times'' coverage at the time. Since then, no effort to push universal child care legislation has been successful.

In Trump-era America, the conservative resistance to increased government funding is still strong. Common arguments against subsidies are that they drive up demand, which raises prices, which makes child care more expensive for those who don't receive assistance and drives up taxes to pay for the subsidies. Critics also argue that government-subsidized childcare unduly burdens those who don't have kids. As libertarian economist Jeffrey Dorfman argued in Forbes in 2016, "Government subsidies for child care surely manage to switch some burden from the poor toward the rich, but they also stick the middle class with most of the bill and punish non-parents." Dorfman wrote that the solution is to make child care cost less, but he didn't provide any suggestion for how to do so.

Victoria Warnken/Romper

Families did get a fragment of hope in 2016, from an unlikely place: At the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump delivered an impassioned speech informing Americans that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump did, in fact, care about women’s issues, and child care specifically. She promised a tax reform plan to give rebates and deductions for families to use on rising child care costs. After much negotiation, the GOP-sponsored tax bill that passed in December 2017 retained the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, but it did not expand it. The bill also doubled the Child Tax Credit from $1,000 to $2,000 per child, and made it refundable. So even parents who don't owe taxes are eligible to receive a check for some or all of the credit, with lower-income parents receiving more.

But critics argue that the bill will not actually help the families who most need help. Massive, across-the-board tax cuts at the heart of the bill mean less tax revenue for the federal government, which will almost certainly mean slashing funding for programs like the child care block grant. Despite Trump’s claim that his “administration wants to work with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable,” as he told a joint session of Congress last year, an analysis of his tax plan conducted by the Tax Policy Center — a self-described non-partisan think tank that has been accused of Democratic bias — found that “70 percent of benefits go to families with at least $100,000." The Center for American Progress also found that the average family of four would receive a startling $5.55 in tax credits.

Also, detractors point out, no matter their size, tax credits don't help the neediest families with their child care costs at all. "For families living paycheck to paycheck, waiting for a year is not realistic, and tax credits add up to only a drop in the bucket," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner in a statement to Romper. Rowe-Finkbeiner is the Executive Director and CEO of MomsRising, a grassroots organization seeking to achieve equality for all mothers. "We need serious investments in early education, and we need to understand it as a public good just as we do the education of children ages 5 to 18 and beyond."

There is a bill in Congress right now that tries to accomplish that. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and Rep. Bobby Scott, another Democrat from Virginia, packaged the recommendations in the American Progress report into the Child Care for Working Families Act, introduced last September. According to Murray's one-page summary of the bill, its goal is to ensure that "no family under 150 percent of state median income pays more than seven percent of their income on child care," which is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ affordability benchmark.

By significantly increasing "the number of children eligible for child care assistance, and ensur[ing] all those who are eligible have the ability to enroll their child in a quality program," the summary states, the bill would decrease the costs of child care for families like Raven's and put more kids in facilities that are required to meet licensing safety criteria (since facilities that receive federal funds must be licensed). According to Hamm, it would also reverse the current system whereby families get vouchers based on how much money has been allocated to the state in the block grant. "In this bill the number of families that are eligible for assistance would drive the amount of funding that's available," Hamm says.

With no Republican co-sponsor or visible Republican support, "It's not something that I think could pass tomorrow," Hamm says. "But I think it's important to have a progressive vision for child care."

When you talk to families, providers, and educators who cope with or at least witness the current system every day, the solutions they recommend all require government involvement. Since Karis is still building her daycare business, she can't even afford to accept vouchers (which only pay providers a state-determined amount, usually well below the rates providers charge), but she's seen enough of the industry to know it isn't working. "I think, definitely, the government is gonna have to work up something to make it more affordable for people because the providers can't afford to run it, and parents can’t afford the high-quality programs," she says. "It seems a little bleak to me."

Marsha agrees. "The only way I can see it changing would be with the help of the government," she says. Whether that be "income-based vouchers, child care facility subsidies, increased public preschool programs, or public campaigns about the reality of daycare," she maintains that a solution is out there.

Hamm says that, despite lingering opposition, the country is coming around to the idea that child care is the government's responsibility. "In the 2016 election we had both presidential candidates talk about competing child care plans, which is not something I think people expected even five or 10 years ago. I think we're making progress," she says. "I think we just [are] still waiting for agreement on what the right policy is and particularly for Congress to prioritize it."

Jessica Raven and Max attending a protest. Photo courtesy of Jessica Raven.

That may be the real rub: For many people — often people who are not parents — fixing child care is not a priority, at least not enough to push for making the care of children up to age four a collective rather than private responsibility. In the past, not many members of Congress had small children, and those who did usually weren't the parent responsible for their children's care.

With little representation among legislators, it's up to parents to make their needs known, but those with small children often do not have the time or energy to advocate for themselves. The New America report found that families are "too busy trying to find their way in our abysmal child care system to change it." Like Simon, they are just so tired. Many parents' only recourse is to look forward to when their babies are no longer babies.

But there are signs that all of that is shifting. Hamm notes that there is an increasing number of parents in office who have little kids, and their personal experiences position them to be far more concerned about child care issues from a legislative perspective. In April, Sen. Tammy Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while in office, after having her first while she was in the House, and many more parents of young children are winning elected office at the state level. "If you look at Virginia, for example, not only do we have this great wave of women of color who were elected, but we also had moms with young kids," Hamm says. "There was [an] orientation for newly elected members of the Virginia House of Delegates, and there was a mom there with a baby in her arms. There was a woman elected who ... gave birth to twins during her campaign who were in the NICU."

Despite their many obligations, working parents, too, are finding the time to propel change. Hamm points to Parent Voices, a grass-roots advocacy group in California, as proof. "They have actually organized parents to get more resources for childcare in California," says Hamm, referring to a $265 million increase in subsidies passed in 2015. The additional money went to distributing more vouchers and upping the amount the vouchers paid to providers. "It's not easy for parents or organizers, especially low income parents who are potentially working multiple jobs and living paycheck to paycheck" to take time out for activism, Hamm says, "but they have done it."

Now that Raven's son is three, he attends public preschool during the day, so she is able to save money on child care. However, she's still recovering from the previous burden of Max's care. “Maybe after a year of having him in preschool, I’ll be able to have money in my savings again,” she tells Romper, “but even now it’s always that time at the end of the month when I’ll have like $60 in my account because of housing and my child care costs.” With her work-associated child care needs, Raven estimates that she still spends about $500 per month on sitters for Max. In time, Raven hopes to have saved up more money. But after months of shelling out so much to cover Max's care, it could take a while.

And for some parents, like Haas, the price tag on quality child care ultimately shapes their families. Haas and her husband decided not to have any more children as the result of the costs. Haas says her husband had a vasectomy because "to have another child would just mean sinking us back under into the whole child care issue once again. For [Evelyn] and for our financial stability we could not ever really do that."

Allison Gore/Romper

Check out the "Swing Vote" series on Romper for more features about how politics affects motherhood.

Additional reporting by Josephine Yurcaba