The Rising Cost of Child Care

Chuck Nelson

Remember the old saying that nothing is certain except death and taxes? If you're a working parent, you might want to add child care costs to that list.

Anew study from advocacy group Child Care Aware of America calls child care “unaffordable” in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with the cost in some regions exceeding $20,000 per child annually.

Ohio fares a little better than some states in the study, with the average cost of center-based care for an infant at $10,009 a year, up from $9,466 in 2018. Home-based care clocks in at $7,592, up from $7,467 last year. (For comparison, average annual tuition at a four-year public university or college is about $10,790.)

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In Franklin County, however, the cost of center-based care is a little steeper at $12,860. Why? Ironically, you can blame the area's continued growth, says Eric Karolak, CEO of Action for Children, a child care resource and referral agency and one of the groups that contribute data to the Child Care Aware of America study. “The things that are making our economy grow are also making it more of a challenge to find affordable housing and to find affordable, quality child care,” he says.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says affordable child care should cost no more than 7 percent of a family's income. By that measure, theEconomic Policy Institute says only 12.2 percent of Ohio families can afford infant care. Its stats show that a median-income Ohio family (earning $57,283) would pay nearly 17 percent of its annual income for one child in infant care.

After trying different options, Jessica Zamary of Powell estimates her family of four now pays about 12.5 percent of their income on care for their toddler twins. “I try not to think about it,” she says.

Child Care Aware of America says the cost of center-based infant care ranges from 7.6 percent to 17.6 percent of median household income for married couples. Millennials pay between 18 percent and 42 percent. Single parents pay a much higher percentage of their income for center-based infant child care (43.8 percent). And married parents of two children living at the poverty line pay 62.6 percent of their household income. (The federal poverty level for a family of three was $20,789 last year.)

“If you just think in terms of what the low-income worker earns, you can have to work more than half the year to make the money necessary to provide child care,” Karolak says.

The Center for American Progress notes that while millions of families qualify for government child care assistance, only one in six eligible children receive it.

“Of course, it's more of a challenge if you have fewer resources,” says Karolak. “For families in Ohio that have a lower rate of pay, you have less to deal with in terms of what you can afford. So the economics, the financial incentives around work don't make a lot of sense. … It's actually a perverse effect that the high price of child care forces people out of the workforce. And that's one of the ways in which this issue is holding us all back.”

In cases where parents are not able to stay at home, they frequently seek out unregulated, informal child care, says Karolak, typically provided by someone in their neighborhood that cares for children, but isn't licensed to do so. “So no one is checking on the welfare of those children, and that's another source of concern,” he says.

That's the situation Katelyn Franklin of Grove City found herself in. “I thought she loved my children,” Franklin says of Kimberly Hignite, the woman who operated an unlicensed day care that was recommended to her by multiple friends and neighbors. “Little did I know their days were spent with 23 other children locked in a room alone and left strapped in their car seats for entire days.”

When Franklin was summoned to Hignite's house one day in 2018, she was met by law enforcement officials. Hignite was prosecuted and later pleaded guilty to 14 counts of child endangerment.

Franklin moved her twin girls to a commercial day care and within weeks, she says, one daughter stopped pulling out her hair and they both gained weight. “Physically and mentally, they blossomed in a very short time,” she says. “We pay more now and our budget is stretched thin, but knowing my daughters are growing and learning in a loving environment is worth every penny.”

Zamary agrees peace of mind is worth the investment. “Our current situation is a little more costly than some others, but we are comfortable with our kids being there. Plus it is a preschool [not just a day care] with real teachers and low turnover, and those are things I'm willing to pay a little more for.

“My kids have what they need, though saving for college has been delayed,” she says. “It puts my parents complaining about the cost of my college education into perspective.”