The Working-to-Afford-Child-Care Conundrum

Many parents get caught in such a loop, but that doesn’t mean the solution is to just stay home with the kids.

A baby
Kirn Vintage Stock / Corbis / Getty

On Tuesday evening, the Democratic-debate moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel posed a challenging question to the presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Tiffany, a young mother in Iowa who’d had to quit a job she loved because child care was eating up two-thirds of her income, had written in, pointing out that many parents in the state had to either quit their job or settle for cheaper, lower-quality child care. “How will you prioritize accessing quality affordable child care in your first 100 days in office?” Tiffany wanted to know.

“It makes no sense for child care to cost two-thirds of somebody’s income. We’ve got to drive it to 7 percent or below, and zero for those families who are living in poverty,” Buttigieg began, citing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ standard of 7 percent of household income as the high-water mark for child-care affordability. “But this is happening to folks at every level of the income spectrum,” he added, promptly coining something like a catchphrase. “I meet professionals who sometimes say that they’re working in order to be able to afford child care in order to be able to be working.”

The ouroboros-like dilemma of having a job that only barely covers the expenses of child care, which you need only because you have a job, existed long before Buttigieg put clever wording to it. Arguably, it has existed for as long as individual people have both worked and had kids, and has been exacerbated in the past half century by the normalization of households in which both parents or the sole parent work outside the home and the skyrocketing costs of child care. But working to afford child care in order to work is both a catchy, pithy description of a problem that has plagued working parents for decades and an oversimplification of it.

The average cost of child care in the United States is $9,000 to $9,600, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit group Child Care Aware of America; that comes out to about 11 percent of married couples’ income on average and 36 percent of single parents’ income, according to the same report. But as Child Care Aware also noted, those averages don’t mean much when child-care costs vary so wildly among states, among regions, and between urban and rural environments. In the Northeast, for example, the average cost of one year of child care for a 4-year-old and an infant came out to more than $26,000. In Seattle, annual child care for just one infant can cost upwards of $23,000, eating up 62 percent of the median single-parent income in that area.

As a result, notes Francine Blau, who teaches economics at Cornell University, there are a lot of Tiffanys in the United States—working parents who watch in frustration as significant chunks of their paid income go directly to child care and who end up leaving the workforce because of it. “There’s considerable research that shows that the higher the cost of child care, the lower the probability that women will be in the labor force,” she says.

Buttigieg’s framing, however—that many parents are working just to afford child care, and need child care because they work—also makes the problem seem deceptively easy to solve.

If all or most of one parent’s income were being canceled out by the costs of child care, perhaps the obvious solution would be for that parent to simply, like Tiffany, stop working and stay at home. But as Blau points out, in many cases it’s not a 1-to-1 ratio; a significant portion of the income may be going to child care, but perhaps the rest is needed to buy the groceries or make the monthly rent payment. “Even if [child care] is eating up half of a parent’s income, the family may need the other half so much that they just have to keep working,” Blau says. Buttigieg’s catchy phrasing, in other words, conveys what one might even say is the easiest version of this problem to solve: It implies a sort of perfectly symbiotic relationship between child care and paid income, as if you could drop one and thus cancel the need for the other—when in reality, many couples need both.

And single parents, Blau adds, are in an even tougher spot. “Single parents have much less of a choice,” she says. Because in a single-parent household forfeiting one income would mean forfeiting the only income, “those parents just have to figure out how to do all of it.”

There are two ways, Blau says, that governments can go about taking some of the child-care burden off of working parents’ shoulders: by providing subsidies or tax credits to help working parents pay for child care, or by providing the child care itself. Usually the latter involves something like the expansion of the existing public-school system to also offer care for children younger than school age, she notes, mentioning Sweden as an example.

An adviser to Sweden’s minister of gender equality wrote in The New York Times in 2013 that the Swedish system is often called “educare” because of its two-pronged aim to “enable parents to combine parenthood with work or studies and to encourage children’s development and learning.” Fees for municipality-provided preschools “are directly proportional to the parents’ income and inversely proportional to the number of children in a family. The fee can be up to 3 percent of a family’s monthly income, but must never exceed 1,260 Swedish krona, or $196, per month.”

Whether the United States will eventually adopt a similar system in the face of a growing child-care crisis—or choose to intervene in some other way—is, of course, a larger question. Americans, Blau notes, are often resistant to the idea of government-provided services, and might be especially skeptical of the idea of expanding public schools to include child care at a time when American students’ test scores are falling behind those of students in other developed countries. Then again, she notes, it was only five or so decades ago that public schools successfully added, and swiftly normalized, a program that gave working parents an extra year of daytime child care: kindergarten.