May 16, 2012 at 8:02 AM ET
Clarissa Doutherd, 30, was able to lift herself out of poverty and climb the ladder of success at a nonprofit, rising from part-time bookkeeping assistant to staff accountant. But last year the high cost of child care derailed her ambitions.
Doutherd, who lives in Oakland, Calif., with her 4-year old son Xavier, had been able to cover the nearly $1,000 monthly child care bill thanks to a state subsidy that helps lower-income working parents. The support disappeared after budget cutbacks last year.
“In June, I had to quit my full-time job,” after her salary was insufficient to cover her child care costs, she said. “I was on the brink of being able to pay the full cost, just another raise away from being completely self-sufficient.”
At a time when women’s issues have become a political football in the national arena, many states have been chipping away at funds aimed at supporting working mothers and families, even as federal subsidies are drying up and the cost of child care is climbing.
The average cost of child care increased nearly 2 percent for centers and family-run child care homes in 2010 compared to the previous year, according to the most recent data available from Child Care Aware of America, which provides information for parents and child care providers. The cost of care for infants in a center rose 2.3 percent, while the cost of infant care in a home setting rose 2.6 percent.
Depending where you live, costs can vary wildly. The average cost for full-time care for a 4-year-old in Mississippi is about $3,900 a year, compared with $12,200 in Massachusetts, the group reported.
“If you need child care today and can’t afford it it’s challenging to get it,” said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t get the spotlight it should given its critical importance to helping women work and helping kids.”
There is a broad political consensus that helping low-income parents pay for child care helps the economy.
Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has said as much on the stump.
“I'm willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work," he said in a speech this year. "It'll cost the state more providing that day care, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work."
But many states have had to slash budgets for such programs, leaving working families struggling to foot hefty child-care bills.
A recent study by the National Women's Law Center shows how some states have taken a hatchet to day care subsidies. A sampling:
Many of the cutbacks by states are a result of federal dollars drying up from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Blank. While President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget proposes $825 million to help states, many working family advocates expect a shortfall.
“The problem we continually face is as a country we’re not willing to put the resources into child care to make that available,” said Blank. “Families can’t afford it, and it’s an endless struggle for providers, families and policymakers.”
The deep recession and slow recovery have kept government officials focused on priorities of food, shelter and employment. But she said that for working families, “child care is the lynchpin for all those things.”
Putting child care on the back burner has been a problem for years, said Martha J. Buell, professor of human development and families studies at the University of Delaware. The United States, she pointed out, is one of the few developed countries that does not fully support education prior to age 5.
The problem, as she sees it, is that policymakers see child care as workforce support rather than preschool education. “The first five years are critically important for getting kids ready for school," she said.
Indeed, Doutherd felt her son benefited from his time in day care, in addition to the benefits of her being able to earn a paycheck and get off welfare.
“We struggle financially because I’m not able to work full-time yet,” said Doutherd, who is trying to get any work she can while watching her son at home. She’s proud to say she hasn’t had to apply for any public assistance yet as she had to in the past, but she’s unsure what the future holds.
“The problem with cutting child care subsidies is instead of encouraging parents and families to work, you put them back into the system,” she said.