More than half of American children go to child care at some point in their lives. It's an essential service for working parents. But it's also incredibly expensive.
American families spend more on child care than their counterparts in many other parts of the world. And the cost in Massachusetts is the highest among the 50 states, with infant care costing, on average, over $20,000 a year, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. The average price for 4-year-olds is only slightly lower, at $15,000 a year.
“It's a strange catch-22,” said Anna Rogers, of Westwood, whose daughter is just finishing preschool. “Parents are paying literally a mortgage … but also, the teachers who are working there are getting paid like a fry cook."
Rogers spent 10 years working in child care centers. During that time, the most she ever earned was $18.97 an hour — or roughly $40,000 a year.
Federal data show that, in 2021, the state’s median child care worker earned less: $14.98 an hour, around $34,920 annually. That is, indeed, about the same hourly wage as a short-order cook, and 15 cents an hour less than the median pay for parking attendants.
People who work in child care are among the lowest paid in educational fields. Here's a look at how the salaries compare — the younger the child being cared for, the lower the median salary.
If workers receive low pay, and parents are hard-pressed to cover tuition, what's driving the high costs?
Keeping a child care center staffed
Child care is staff-intensive work. Since providers cater to working parents, they often keep longer hours than public schools — Rogers said 10-hour days aren't uncommon on the job.
State regulations also play a part. In Massachusetts, centers must employ at least one qualified adult staffer for every three or four infants in their care, with higher ratios for older children.
The regulations are stricter than those in some southern and midwestern states, for example, but they're in keeping with federal guidelines and industry groups' recommended best practices. None of the people interviewed for this story supported loosening those ratios.
“You can't have [a dozen] 1-year-olds with one teacher. That's not safe,” said Latoya Gayle, the advocacy director for the child care nonprofit Neighborhood Villages. “The younger our children are … the more manpower is needed to do that work. That’s why it’s expensive.”
Colin Jones, a research analyst for the Mass. Budget and Policy Center, said class sizes need to remain small — around the levels set by the state — for child care to fulfill its potential to be a lasting, positive intervention in children's lives.
“The evidence says quality [child care] takes paid teachers — like teachers with pay and benefits — common playing time, good ratios, all those things,” he said. In a report last spring, Jones concluded that would cost at least $28,000 per child per year in Massachusetts, where the cost of living tends to be high.
Lack of government support
Providing high-quality child care is expensive. But another reason families pay so much for the care of children under 5 is because the government pays very little.
The United States government spends the fourth-lowest percentage of its gross domestic product on child care among the 38 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, ahead of Greece, Canada and Turkey. It’s also near the back of the pack in terms of per-pupil spending, especially when it comes to children in the first two years of life.
Under Massachusetts’ state law, a blend of local, state and federal finances pays for at least $13,000 per student per year in K-12 public schools. But public support for child care in the United States is far lower -- averaging $3,000 per child, according to an international survey conducted in 2021.
Federal spending on child care goes largely toward subsidies and the Head Start program — both targeted at low-income families.
But as Ashley White, a researcher for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said, "It struggles even to serve all of those families." White pointed to February data showing more than 16,000 income-eligible children on waitlists for care in Massachusetts.
Supply and demand
The state has what Jones calls "a very complex market failure" when it comes to child care. A mix of minimal government spending, widespread demand and limited supply leaves all but the wealthiest households underserved, spending more than they can comfortably afford, or both, Jones said.
Families "who have enough income that they're not worried about it and just want the best for their kids," in Jones's words, will pay well above the state average.
Meanwhile, for families who earn average salaries — but too much to qualify for government support — Jones said the message seems to be, "You're on your own. Figure it out."
While child care seats are essential to most families, the supply comes up far short. The state had roughly 30% fewer child care seats than it needed in 2019, according to an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
And that was before workers left the field in significant numbers, and centers closed during the pandemic. Although many centers have since reopened, state estimates suggest that as of May, there were still almost 8,000 fewer seats than before COVID.
Nancy Folbre, a professor emerita of economics at UMass Amherst, sees the lack of investment in early childhood education as a reflection of social values. She compared an investment in a child's first five years to one in green energy research: it will pay dividends to the society at large, but only decades down the line — and therefore, she argued, it gets treated as a luxury or neglected entirely in an economy focused on short-term payoffs.
“There's really very extensive empirical literature that shows a huge payoff to improving the capabilities of young children through child care," Folbre said, pointing to impressive benefits like higher rates of school completion, better health and less crime.
“But here's the problem: Who captures the returns? Well, you know, children themselves as they grow up ... but they're not in a position to pay for them up front.”
Colin Jones and others believe the pandemic breakdown has presented an opportunity to remake a dysfunctional status quo. He pointed to a recent report by the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers’ Foundation, which estimated that the child care system’s shortcomings could cost the state $2.7 billion a year.
While a sweeping overhaul looks unlikely, advocates are optimistic about a state bill drafted this spring that would award grants to centers to raise teacher pay, add financial aid for students and increase teacher training. It would also ramp up subsidies to families earning up to 85% of the median income, with room to expand them further if the federal government provides more funding.
Even if that bill passes, it will take time to make an impact. Many families with young children today will still face seat shortages and high costs when seeking child care — with little hope of financial relief until kindergarten rolls around.
This segment aired on June 14, 2022.