The Million Dollar Juicebox

Daly Trimble | Contributor

Parents and students alike have long discussed the problematically high cost of a college education.  However, caregivers are now slammed with sky-high bills long before their children begin kindergarten.  Anyone with young kids will tell you that the amount they pay for their offspring to be protected, stimulated, and fed has reached astronomical levels.  What often goes overlooked though, is that those levels are rising to equal the cost of a university degree and that childcare now takes financial first place over rent and food in many family budgets.  Not only are the numbers unprecedented and unaccounted for, but America’s failure to address it through policy has placed undue limitations on the well-being of all families.

I see you, childless reader.  “It’s daycare.  How much do parents and guardians actually shell out?”  The answer is thousands.  According to a 2016 article referencing the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, the average national cost of daycare at a center is $972 per month, coming to $11,666 per year.  Daycares that are based out of homes are slightly cheaper, at about $7,761 for babies and toddlers and $7,627 for preschool-aged kids annually.  However, like college educations, childcare costs vary based on location and rise over the years.  For example, Pennsylvania was listed as the seventh most expensive state for preschool care in centers, with costs in facilities beginning above over $8,000 a year.  If the numbers haven’t made you flinch yet, know that these are figures per child.  The policy group Childcare Aware has calculated that the average cost of daycare for a Pennsylvania family with a baby and a four-year old is between $15,114 and $21,097.  Pitt tuition is currently $18,618.  How did it get to be this way?

Nobody really knows.  Economists can track the burgeoning cost of childcare, but they have been unable to identify exact causation.  The Department of Labor’s childcare and nursery school index bloated by over 21 percent from 2009 to 2016, whereas the greater Consumer Price Index only grew by 12 percent.  In other words, the cost of childcare has outpaced inflation and is increasing for undetermined reasons.  Daycare workers are still poorly paid at an average of less than $10 an hour, and their salaries have not increased proportionally to the amount on the parent’s bill.  Analysts have pointed fingers at costly and strict regulations for centers, the desire among wealthy families for increasingly high-quality services, and decreased government funding for public aid.  It’s likely a combination of these and other factors, but the more important question is how young families manage to make ends meet.

Many struggle to do so.  Government programs and public preschools are available, but barriers are numerous.  According to Pennsylvania’s Promise for Children, an advocacy group that partners with the Pennsylvania Office for Early Learning and Development, the state offers financial aid, federal Head Start services, and free pre-kindergarten and nursery programs.  However, the qualifications for eligibility are steep, and numerous comments on the PA Promise website complain of being caught in a deadening income bracket: low enough to struggle but just high enough to fail to qualify.  Parents face red tape and long waiting lists, often while feeling discriminated against for having a paycheck just slightly larger than cutoff value.

Outside of the growth and development of children, the largest impact childcare difficulties make is arguably on the maternal employment rate.  Pew Research has indicated that economic straits are sending mothers back home, with 23 percent remaining unemployed in 1999 and 29 percent in 2012.  Conversely, moms who have stable child care arrangements are doubly likely to remain employed, and it has been estimated that employment would jump 10 percent if early childhood education were made universally available.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s initiatives to amend the situation seem unlikely to be effective.  First daughter Ivanka Trump and economic advisor Dina Powell have drafted a plan centered on a deduction for childcare expenses that would be included in a larger tax overhaul the president is planning to initiate.  However, tax deductions only benefit those who qualify to pay taxes, thus squeezing out the poorest families and favoring units with two working parents.  Additionally, the plan is expected to cost the government $500 billion over the next ten years, making it unlikely to actually be accepted by policymakers.

What can be done?  Rather than banking on a new plan from the president, looking to employers may be most helpful.  Yahoo! And Google are well-known for on-site childcare that is either free or subsidized, and other places have followed suit.  However, a constant issue for most employees is limitation.  Perusing through Pitt’s website on its University Child Development Center, expecting or new parents will discover that they are in unfavorable conditions.  The waitlist is three years long, and the tuition is not posted.  Parents can expect to fare more poorly on the lists if they don’t already have children enrolled in the 12 existing classrooms.   

I call on all workplaces to expand and cheapen childcare for their workers, but I most ask my university to do so.  Not only will this likely increase productivity and definitely promote a parent-friendly environment, but expanding and amending childcare policies could also put Pitt at the forefront of progressive employment policies.  With a large population of mothers in faculty, administration, and the student body, Pitt has the opportunity to set a new national standard for respecting the needs of those raising the next generation of Americans.