Child care costs

A new study outlines the financial burden of child care on working families.

IS THE COST of child care driving some parents into poverty?

A study on living wages released last week by the UW's Northwest Policy Center and the activist group Washington Citizen Action certainly gives some ammunition to that point of view.

Its figures show that a family with two wage earners and two kids needs to earn $42,111 a year to keep going in this state, while a salary of only $31,853 can support a family of four with only one wage slave. A two-parent, two-kid family with a stay-at-home parent has lower expenses than a household with two kids and a working single parent. The reason is obvious: the cost of day care. That doesn't necessarily mean that a family is better off going back to the old ways: A family with two workers can have a net gain if their salaries are high enough. And as Betty Friedan told us long ago, everybody suffers when moms feel trapped at home. (So why do working moms still feel obliged to spout a financial rationale?) But it does mean that day-care costs are a significant financial burden for many families, often the burden that makes their wages unlivable. "How can parents possibly afford to pay [for good child care]?" asks Deena Heg, the study's primary researcher. For many families, she says, "the answer is they can't."

What's more, the picture is even worse than the study indicates. It puts the cost of day care for two kids at $600 a month. I'd suggest the researchers quote that figure around Seattle day-care centers and listen to the uproarious laughter. In their defense, the researchers were going for a statewide figure and were stuck picking ages for the kids out of a hat. They chose to make one pretend kid a toddler and another a school-age child needing only part-time day care.

In King County, the median cost for full-time toddler care is between $550 and $612 for just one kid, according to state government figures for the year 2000. Top-quality centers often run as high as $1,000 a month, again for just one child, and if you want to make yourself cry, go take a look at the down-market alternatives.

Yet political action on the child-care front tends to focus not on lowering costs for parents but on raising the salaries of workers in the industry (salaries are dismally low, despite the high cost of care). In this state, a year-old pilot program funded by Gov. Gary Locke offers teachers at 124 day-care centers the opportunity to raise their salaries through added experience, education, and responsibilities. Supporters point out that better salaries help parents by raising day-care quality. And the program doesn't raise the cost to parents, since wage hikes are funded by the state. But it doesn't lower the cost to parents, either.

Still, welfare reform has led to new day-care subsidies. With city and county programs adding to state benefits, you can now make as much as 255 percent of the poverty level—or $45,000 for a family of four—and get some financial help, though far from the full cost of day care. (The county program may, however, be in jeopardy due to the effects of Tim Eyman's tax-cutting initiatives.)

Seattle's Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank, offers another glimmer of hope: The institute is researching the feasibility of an initiative that would expand day-care subsidies further, as well as raise workers' salaries on a statewide basis and offer 5 weeks of minimally paid family leave. The Institute's executive director, John Burbank, says, "I believe that if we can determine a funding source, there will be popular support."

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