The Child Care Conundrum
Should working moms lean in, opt out, or something in between? When it comes to careers, motherhood is a condition that, rightly or wrongly, is blamed for lower earnings, slower advancement, and the absence of women from the workforce. At the crux of every discussion about the “mommy wars” or “having it all” is the overwhelming, expensive mess that is child care in the United States — and the many difficulties women who work outside the home face because of it.
“I’m 31 years old, and my career is slowly getting away from me because I have to be concerned about the child care options for my daughter and how she’s raised,” says Celia Garcia Perez, whose little girl, Nayeli, will be 2 in June.
Garcia Perez started her career at nonprofits and in local governments in her native California before attending graduate school at American University, where she earned her master’s. Her daughter was born about a month after graduation, and Garcia Perez has had a hard time finding a job since then.
“I want to give Nayeli that role model of the working mom. She could benefit from that. And everybody knows that a household is not happy unless mom is happy. For me, that means some sort of professional engagement,” Garcia Perez says.
But her field, human rights, is hardly a lucrative one, and the cost of child care in the Washington, D.C., area is steep. Care in Garcia Perez’s neighborhood runs about $1,200 a month, so for now Garcia Perez is making extra money as a nanny while volunteering on the board of a maternal health organization in hopes of parlaying the experience into paid work. She’s come to terms with the fact that when she restarts her career, her salary might only be enough to cover the cost of child care and transportation. “It would be a wash,” she says.
Nearly 4 million babies are born every year in the United States. Most of them will need some sort of child care before they’re school age. Yet working parents are left with few child care options and a shocking lack of information about the quality of care their kids will get.
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Child care is one of the flagpole items on the Women’s Economic Agenda, a series of issues that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and others are pushing in Congress. The agenda points out that “the lack of affordable and high-quality child care in this country has reached crisis proportions” and that parents face a dearth of high-quality preschool options for their children.
Depending on the state, the average cost of full-time care for infant ranges from 7 to 19 percent of the median income for married parents. In every state, the cost exceeds 25 percent of the median income for single parents.
“Cost is big,” Garcia Perez says. “But so is quality.”
As former AAUW Student Advisory Council Member Maureen Evans Arthurs put it at a Women’s Economic Agenda event in fall 2013, “Affordable child care and safe child care aren’t synonymous.” Arthurs described her experience on putting her son, Noah, in a “subpar” but more affordable center briefly while she was in college. A first-generation college graduate, Arthurs considered quitting school to care for her son but decided with her husband to take out about $30,000 in student loans to cover the cost of better child care.
Low-quality care can be dangerous, and it’s often difficult to sniff out the bad apples. National news stories abound of kids injured or killed in the care of providers — in homes or institutions — who are untrained or negligent. The stories keep working parents up at night.
The quality question led Amanda Vincent, and executive in the technology field, to always choose more institutional day care centers and preschools for her two daughters, now 9 and 14, because of a “perceived safety in numbers.”
Licensing requirements vary from state to state, and accreditation means different things to different certifying agencies. Thus, the quality of any given child care scenario can feel like a crapshoot. Many providers operate with no licensing or oversight whatsoever, and centers that do have licensing, accreditation, and well-trained staff tend to be pricey and often involve waiting lists that can be months long. A National Institute of Child Health Development survey found that fewer than 10 percent of child care settings provided high-quality care when measuring things like adult-to-child ratio, group size, reading, and teaching.
Vincent, a single mom who adopted her daughters, got on a waiting list about a year before her kids arrived. Because there are so few resources to find child care centers, she relied on recommendations from friends and a community Listserv. When both daughters were in child care at the same time, she paid about $2,500 a month. “That’s a lot of money,” says Vincent, who says being able to work primarily from home helps her cope with a high-demand job and still have time to spend with her daughters.
Vincent faces the stress of being the only breadwinner, and she’s used many other types of care, including au pairs and babysitters, to cover the “second shift” of work that faces her when she gets home. “It takes a village,” Vincent quips. “But you have to pay everyone in the village.”
It;s not clear yet which child care options from the Women’s Economic Agenda will grain traction. Meanwhile, the situation for working parents often remains untenable, with the result that parents are spending way too much on care and that many talented women leave, never enter, or find themselves stalled in the workforce.
There are precedents for considering child care a national imperative — from the child care centers that were set up during World War II so that women could work in factories to Congress passing (but President Richard Nixon vetoing) the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which would have established a national system of child care centers for preschool children.
The structure of families has changed enormously since the 1970s, when politicians said that funding child care would ruin the traditional family. Over the past 50 years, the percentage of children raised in homes where both parents work full time has almost doubled. Meanwhile, the issue of funding better, more affordable child care for all working parents hasn’t been seriously addressed since the Comprehensive Child Development Act died 43 years ago.
Whatever the solution, something has to give. Because working mothers, kids, and the economy are paying the price.
“Women do not gave the options that we need to take care of our families,” says Garcia Perez. “How many generations of women have not been able to advance because they could not afford or did not have access to the quality child care they needed.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine.