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REYES: Working families fear for future of child care

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Having children and supporting families is central to human life and the propagation of mankind. Yet, those who choose to have children are met with an increasingly uncertain future when planning their families. An especially pressing question on the mind of parents is who will take care of their child when they return to work?

Some parents have the privilege of having family members who are willing to care for their child or high incomes to afford the rising costs of quality child care. But for the 52 percent of U.S. workers with no access to paid leave (sick, vacation or parental) — many of whom are low and middle-income — the lack of quality, affordable child care is frightening. A 2016 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that more than two-thirds of parents who pay for child care say that the cost has been a financial burden for their household: Out of these parents, 71 percent believe it is a “somewhat or very serious problem.” This is not an aberration — like many other components of an adequate standard of living, costs have skyrocketed. The U.S. Census Bureau affirmed that the “average weekly cost of child care for families with working mothers is 30 percent higher than it was 15 years ago.” What is troubling is how quickly the cost of child care is outpacing other household and family expenses.

A report from New America in collaboration with found that the average yearly cost of child care in the U.S, $9,589, has exceeded the average annual cost of in-state college tuition, which is $9,410. In comparison to median rent, the average cost of full-day child care is higher in four states: In 11 states and the District of Columbia, it is more than 90 percent of median rent. This far exceeds the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ child care affordability threshold of 10 percent of family income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the high cost of child care is especially prohibitive for minimum-wage workers’ family budgets even after adjusting for higher state and city minimum wages. For example, a minimum-wage worker in Hawaii  — where the state minimum wage is $7.75 — would have to dedicate all of their earnings from working 40 hours per week from January until September to pay for infant care costs. 

Many parents have a hard time finding a child care facility in their neighborhood. While cost is definitely a barrier, child care supply and location is a serious national problem that, as reported by the Center for American Progress (CAP), disproportionately impacts rural areas. In 2016, CAP released a study analyzing the differences in the “presence and cumulative capacity of child care centers across eight states (nearly 7,000 ZIP codes),” where 20 percent of the U.S. population under age 5 resides — researchers uncovered a startling fact: That 42 percent of these children live in “child care deserts.” Using terminology from the widely studied issues of food deserts, this study defined a child care desert as a “ZIP code with at least 30 children under the age of 5 and either no child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many children under age 5 as there are spaces in centers.” This problem is not only about the need for high-quality, dependable child care and early education: It is also a matter of securing the economic well-being of American families. In a nation in which it is becoming a pressing economic necessity for both parents to work, it is shameful that quality, affordable child care is out of reach for so many.

During his campaign, President Donald J. Trump pledged to lower child care costs and guarantee six weeks of maternity leave — policies formulated by businesswoman Ivanka Trump, his eldest daughter. However, the proposal’s structure has been criticized because it relies on tax deductions to distribute relief, which does little to meet the needs of low-and-middle-income families. Since this is an issue that impacts many U.S. families, especially in areas with a high cost of living, Trump should propose a bold public investment plan to improve living standards — improving child care affordability and access is a necessary component. It is past time for the U.S. to seriously consider and present plans for lifting all Americans to a livable wage and universal child care and pre-kindergarten programs as well as paid parental leave — a policy that has been instituted in almost every other country in the world. To improve future economic mobility, performance and opportunity, we need to invest in our children and families today.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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