More expensive than college

What parents can do when the cost of sending a toddler to child care is

When Missie Duffy gave birth to her son, Patrick, three years ago, the high school health teacher decided to spend one year at home with her tyke and then return to work. That was until she saw the cost of child care.

"It was going to be anywhere from $850 to $1,000 a month," says Ms. Duffy, who lives with her husband, John, also a teacher in Manassas, Va. After taxes, they figured her take-home pay would come to between $400 and $550 a month. "So it wasn't worth it to go back to work.... Who is going to work for $100 a week?"

The question of how to pay for quality child care is a concern many working parents face. In virtually every community across the US, one year of child care costs more than annual tuition at a public university - in some cases twice as much, according to one recent study.

In 1998, the average annual tuition for a 4-year-old to attend full-time child care ranged from $4,000 to $6,000, notes the 2001 edition of "Financing Child Care in the United States," a catalog of innovative financing strategies issued by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. That year, annual tuition and fees at a four-year public college or university averaged $3,243, the study noted. And in some areas, like booming Northern Virginia, child-care costs can easily top $10,000 a year per child, and account for 10 to 25 percent of a household's budget.

The financial burden falls especially hard on young families who are still gaining their financial footing, experts say. "Families that earn between $25,000 and $50,000 are the most squeezed," says Anne Mitchell, president of Early Childhood Policy Research, an independent consulting firm in Climax, N.Y., and a co-author of the study.

Tax credits for child care, she says, favor families in the upper-income bracket who have more tax liability. And middle-income families "earn too much to be eligible for almost any state's subsidy system," Ms. Mitchell says of the public programs that benefit low-income families.

As a result, many middle-income parents are forced to choose between "quality child care, mediocre, and sometimes just-OK child care," she says. "It can be a wrenching decision, because you can see things that you can't afford that you'd like to afford. We should care enough as a society not to force parents into that dilemma."

Faced with this reality, however, many parents look for alternative ways to minimize the costs. A parent may choose not to work or to work fewer hours, note the authors of "Child Care Expenses of America's Families," a study issued last year by the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington. Those in two-parent households may work different shifts to avoid expenses. And some ultimately place their children in care they consider unsatisfactory, because other arrangements are too expensive, the report writes.

Jim Boissonnault and Kate Watters of Alexandria, Va., sifted through many options for their 4-year-old daughter, Ella - including some private home-care providers - before settling on a part-time preschool run by a local Baptist church. The husband and wife pay $125 a month to place their daughter in the center three days a week, four hours a day - a cost that Ms. Watters describes as "unheard of" in this affluent Washington suburb.

Costs are kept low partly because it is a co-op, and parents are "required to volunteer" at the center, says Watters, who spends one day a month in the bright, airy classrooms filled with pint-sized furniture and toys.

"The only downside is if you are a person who has limited free time. Those are four hours when you could be working or doing something else," says the Russian specialist, who works part time at an international nonprofit organization in Washington.

There are other compromises as well. The couple is not Baptist, and the curriculum includes lessons in religion. "You inevitably end up going to a church-affiliated day care, because they're the only affordable ones," says Mr. Boissonnault. The two also hire Ms. Watters' mother to watch Ella for part of the week, bringing their monthly total to about $600. Blasting the overall expense of child care in America as "outrageous," Boissonnault says the cost should be covered by the government.

Public sector to play greater role?

Indeed, nearly every other industrialized nation has some type of publicly funded system for early-childhood care. In France, for instance, preschool for children, ages 2-1/2 to 6, is universal and free, notes Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, an advocacy group based in New York City.

"Over 99 percent of French children go there, whether their mothers or fathers work or not," she says.

While she doesn't believe such a federally operated child-care system would work in the US, Ms. Wohl sees some states moving "aggressively" toward universal preschool for children as young as age 3.

"If we could get the public sector to accept the responsibility that preschool education has as much social value as we see in elementary education, that could take care of the 3- and 4-year olds," Wohl says. "Then we could get the private sector to focus their resources on infants and toddlers."

Others, however, say the government should simply cut taxes and allow families to use their extra income as they see fit - whether it's to cover the cost of child care, or to ease the financial burden that occurs when one parent leaves a job to stay with a child.

"We should honor both of those choices," says Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Instead of raising taxes even more so the government can put kids into free day care, we ought to be rolling those taxes back," he says, adding that "institutionalized day care is not a big favorite of most parents."

President George W. Bush's recently enacted tax-cut measure doubles the child tax credit to $1,000 per child. But Mr. Rector advocates raising the amount to $2,000 for each preschool-age child. This would help parents during the time of "maximum financial stress on the family," he says.

In the meantime, advocates are seeking ways to better leverage existing funds from both the public and private sectors. That is the mission of the Finance CIRCLE, a project that aims to develop new financing strategies for early learning and after-school programs.

Among the models being explored are those that support higher-education funding. Colleges and universities rely on a family's tuition and fees for only about 35 percent of their revenue, according to Finance CIRCLE. By contrast, 72 percent of revenue at day care facilities comes from fees paid by parents.

"There are lessons to be learned from the higher education model," and how colleges take advantage of many public and private sources to shoulder the bulk of their costs, says Gail Bjorklund, director of corporate and community development in the Office for Children in Fairfax County, Va., one of five communities that receives support from Finance CIRCLE.

Tapping businesses

In Fairfax, Ms. Bjorklund is encouraging companies to get more involved in the issue. One simple way businesses can support child care, she says, is to donate some of their space to child-care providers.

"This can be a huge way of having the parents' fee turn around to support the salaries, which means you're able to attract a more highly qualified staff person and keep them longer," Bjorklund notes. "Business is taking care of another piece of the budget."

Another cost-saving strategy calls for pooling resources, including those of the religious community. Along with every available dime of funding from the federal, state, and county governments, nearly 30 local churches help support the Annandale Christian Community for Action (ACCA) day-care facility in Fairfax County.

Most of the parents of the 182 children enrolled in the center pay a sliding-scale fee based on income and family size. Some pay as little as $7 a week, says Judith Falkenrath, the director of the facility, which charges a relatively low top fee of $152 per week for full-time preschool care.

It's not without a catch, however. As families make more money, their fees go up. "We lose more people when they finally make it [financially]. When they get to the point where they have to pay full fee, they can't afford it," Ms. Falkenrath notes. "Every time they get a raise, we take it away from them. Imagine how discouraging that can be; you can't win, can't get ahead."

Fortunately, that's not the case yet for Marta Mendoza, who enrolls her two sons, Steven, age 5, and Daniel, age 3, in ACCA. But even coming up with the $50 a week child-care fee is difficult. "I have a second job because I'm a single mother and I have to pay rent and a whole bunch of bills," she says, as Steven spins around her legs. "I do have family here, but they're all working. I wish they could help."

Help for the child-care finance dilemma may not be too far off, however, especially as the public recognizes the importance of fostering positive early childhood experiences, says Mitchell of Early Childhood Policy Research.

Looking to the past for inspiration in the current struggle, she notes: "We didn't have a public commitment to financing higher education until after World War II. We figured out how to do it. I have great faith that we're very entrepreneurial and creative and we can figure out how to do this."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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