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Child Care is More Expensive Than College in 31 States — and Rightly So

Wallet with no money inside

Gosh, look how rich I am after sending my baby to daycare, said no one ever

If you thought college tuition is high, it’s clearly been a while since you had a baby in daycare.

A report from the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America found that in 31 states plus the District of Columbia, it’s more expensive to pay for infant care than college tuition and fees.

As it should be.

It will be quite some time before I send one of my daughters off to college, although I have no doubt that when the day arrives, I will be an ugly crying, nose-running, mascara-streaked hot mommy mess. But I also imagine that it will be not the same kind of panic that ensued when I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to send my older daughter to daycare when she was just a few months old.

THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH DAYCARE, but it wasn’t what I wanted for my firstborn. Daycare wasn’t cheap — and in the end I was able to figure out a way to work from home so I could care for her (and now my younger daughter) full time instead of entrusting her care to others. It was critically important to me to be there in those early days, and years. I had trouble breathing when I imagined her napping in what I felt was an institution-like atmosphere. As kind as I thought the caregivers were at the daycare we looked at, and as decent as the facility seemed to be, there was no part of my heart that felt she’d be getting the same kind of love and attention that I could give her. I ultimately carved out some work options for myself so that I had a choice — and I feel eternally grateful for that fact. My wallet was happy about it, too.

But really, it was never about the money. I mean, of course it’s about the money. My veins don’t run dollar-green and yet I seem to hemmorage money nonetheless. But do you really want to skimp on the person charged with caring for your tiny baby? Or would you rather the most highly qualified and deserving professionals have the job — and feel as if you value them because you’re paying enough for them to live, eat and thrive in the same community where they work and care for your tiny baby? Still, there’s a limit to what most families can afford. And as is the case with the tuition at many colleges, that limit is far exceeded with the cost of licensed child-care centers.

According to ABC News, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers 10 percent of family income for child care as a benchmark for [child care] affordability,” and yet in one state — Oregon — child care is so expensive that families pay more than 18 percent of their income. In the majority of states, married couples pay well over 10 percent of the median income for child care. For single parents in all 50 states, center-based infant care is in excess of 25 percent of their median income. Center-based infant care is as high as $21,948 in the District of Colombia and as low as $4,863 in Mississippi.

CNN attributes the state-by-state discrepancies to “differences in labor costs, state regulations [such as the teacher/child ratio per classroom] and cost of living expenses, such as housing, food and utilities.”

The cost of child care increased by as much as eight times more than family incomes in 2012. So while college tuition gets most of the ink for getting more and more absurdly expensive, the fact is that the high cost of having children starts much, much sooner — and figuring out how to care for them is getting pricier at a much more rapid pace.

And the truth of the matter is that while I want my kids to have the very best higher education, the foundation of their education and pretty much everything else starts at the time of their birth. It would stand to reason that kids with a lower quality start in life, whether it’s at a sub-par daycare facility or low-quality elementary school, are not going to fare as well in college than their peers who had access to the most educated and nurturing caregivers in their earliest days — whether at home, with another family member or nanny or at daycare. A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reveals that only “one out of three third-graders has the skills necessary to become a successful adult.”

I feel for families without too many choices, including ones that have no choice but to send their babies to daycare and then struggle financially as a result. My heart goes out, too, to parents who simply can’t afford quality, licensed child care, so instead they put their kids in dangerous or unproven facilities to save some money. Unlike with college, where scholarships, financial aid and the like are available to so many needy kids, there are all too often not enough government subsidies to go around for families who need to work and put their kids in child care, according to CNN.

While I do think that it should cost more to care for a baby than educate a young adult — to me, it’s about the quality of the caregiver and wanting them to have high job satisfaction so they’re motivated to excel at what they do, which is so much more than a job — there’s no question that the price of both is profoundly and distressingly expensive.

***

The 10 least-affordable states in 2012 for center-based care based on the cost of child care as a percentage of state median income for a two-parent family (in ranked order:

1. Oregon
2. New York
3. Minnesota
4. Massachusetts
5. Colorado
6. California
7. Illinois
9. Washington
10. Kansas

Click here for the full report.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

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Follow Meredith on Twitter and check out her regular column on the op-ed page of The Denver Post at MeredithCarroll.com

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