Families of moderate means – not only those in poverty – struggle to afford quality child care.
That’s a key finding of a recent survey of states and local child-care agencies that asked for average fees charged by child-care programs last year.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies said if parents living at twice the federally designated poverty level struggle, single parents especially face an immense challenge.
“Child care is essential to working families and working families are key to economic growth, said Linda Smith, executive director of the association. “But child care today is simply unaffordable for most families.”
Those findings align with experiences of some local providers. Kelly Johnson opened Kelly’s Kiddie Kare six years ago on Bluffton Road.
Only a couple of parents have taken their children out of care during that time because of job loss, Johnson said. More common is a switch to part-time care from full time, as parents’ work hours have been cut or they find ways to reduce expenses.
“A lot can’t afford it, and they don’t have full-time jobs,” Johnson said.
Today, she said she hardly gets any requests for full-time care.
“I have nothing but part-time calls,” she said.
Child Care Resource and Referral agencies throughout the country report some parents have responded to the economic climate by moving their children from licensed child-care centers or family child-care homes to informal, unlicensed settings, according to the national association’s report.
The cost of child care nationally has continued to increase despite the weak economy, the report said. Last year, cost of care for an infant in a family child-care home varied greatly, from $3,850 in Mississippi to $12,100 in Massachusetts.
The report showed a two-parent Hoosier family would pay about 12.6 percent its median income on infant care. As a percentage of a median single-mother’s income, that cost shot up to 41.2 percent.
Nationally, a family of three living on about $36,000 a year – twice the federal poverty level – would pay more than a quarter of that income to send an infant to a child-care center, the report said.
The report found urban child care more expensive than rural child care, although rural residents have fewer options and rely more often on informal, unlicensed care from neighbors and friends.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies said its report is important because from birth to age 5, 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed and learning patterns that affect school readiness are established.
There is help for parents who are struggling to afford care but not much. The Child Care and Development Block Grant is a federal program provided to states, which make their own policies about child-care subsidy rates.
About 1.6 million children receive assistance in the form of monthly subsidies or vouchers, but that’s only about one of every six eligible children, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.
More than one in five children who receive federal assistance is in unlicensed care – in other words, public funds are paying for low or unknown quality, the association wrote in its report.
As Indiana worked its way through the recession, it saw less assistance available to help eligible children even as more parents asked for help. According to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration’s Bureau of Child Care, the number of children receiving child-care vouchers has decreased since 2007, and the number of children on the waiting list for vouchers has increased during the same period.
The Bureau of Child Care does note a silver lining in those statistics, though: While fewer unique families have been served during the year, an increasing number of families have remained in the program for longer periods of time. Those fortunate children see more stability in their child care by being able to remain in the program longer.
Call for funding
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, in concluding its report, urged Congress to reauthorize the block grant that provides assistance to families and to use the opportunity to call for improvements to quality.
“Parent choice in child care is a national policy objective,” it said. “But, when parents can only choose among poor quality settings, that’s not a real choice.”
In 36 states – including Indiana – the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care is higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college, according to the report.
But unlike the cost of higher education, the association said, there is no system of public financing to help make child care more affordable to families.
Madeleine Baker, executive director of Early Childhood Alliance in Fort Wayne, said the cause lacks a champion at the policy-making level in Indiana. She worries that today’s challenges in affording quality child care for Hoosier children will translate to struggling schoolchildren – and eventually, struggling adults.
“They’re already behind the eight ball entering into kindergarten,” she said. “I really feel that, investing in early years, you reap the benefits later on.”
Early Childhood Alliance operates three state-licensed and nationally accredited child-care centers in Fort Wayne, priced at the market rate. Those prices haven’t changed for about three or four years, Baker said, but what has changed is parents’ ability to afford them.
Baker said Early Childhood Alliance has seen enrollment at all three centers decline, down 15 percent to 20 percent overall.
Some parents see an opportunity when a relative suffers a job loss and decides to take in children. But that kind of care can lack development opportunities for children, Baker said.
The downturn has prompted Early Childhood Alliance to diversify its funding streams, and Baker said it is grateful for key supporters such as the Foellinger Foundation and United Way.
In most cases, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies said, child-care providers aren’t getting rich off their clients’ misfortune. Child care remains one of the lowest-paying professional fields, the association said in its report, with an average wage for full-time child-care workers of $10.15 an hour.
That means, the report said, it’s hard for child-care providers to control costs by cutting salaries – they’re already low. They’re controlling costs by increasing child-to-staff ratios and group sizes, cutting back on workforce training, closing classrooms or delaying facility improvements.
Johnson, of Kelly’s Kiddie Kare, is one of four workers at her center, which is licensed for 16 children.
She hasn’t had to cut staff but has had to adapt to the changing economy by cutting her employees’ hours.