Nearly half of American mothers — some 43 percent — leave full-time jobs when they have children. Many take this step because the cost of child care erodes a significant proportion of their monthly income.
THE Seattle Times recently published an article about one local family’s financial challenges created by the high cost of child care. The family’s household income was about $195,000 — one-quarter of which went to child care for their two young children.
While this was not an insignificant cost for the couple — who earn more than twice the Seattle median household income of more than $80,000 — their struggles indicate that if child care is costly for high-earning families, imagine its devastating impact on families earning below-average incomes?
As mothers who are also focused on creating equitable workplaces for women, we believe that unaffordable child care drives rampant inequality for everyone.
To enroll just one infant in a full-time day care in King County, the average family shells out about $17,300 annually. That’s more than a year of in-state tuition at the University of Washington. And while we keep reading about how expensive homes are in Seattle, not nearly enough attention is given to how prohibitive child-care costs have become.
Families being forced out of their homes due to high home prices is devastating. But parents not being able to afford care for their children — that’s a tragedy. It’s one that is having a noticeable impact on our economy, particularly by forcing women who are mothers out of the workforce.
Nearly half of American mothers — some 43 percent — leave full-time jobs when they have children. Many take this step because the cost of child care erodes a significant proportion of their monthly income. Losing a pool of educated, qualified and experienced workers every year should alarm everyone. We also know that moms already face discrimination in the workforce — they’re paid 71 cents to every dollar earned by fathers, and that figure drops to 58 cents for single mothers.
Once women drop out, as many must because of child-care costs, they often return to the workplace at a markedly junior position that pays less. Women with children also can be penalized by some employers who take them off a leadership path.
Single-income families, the majority of which are headed by women, are deeply penalized for having children. Currently, just finding care for one infant would eat up 18.5 percent of a Washington family’s income. For single moms, low-income families and those with multiple children, basic child care has become a luxury only the rich can afford.
This becomes even more worrisome when considering that women disproportionately work lower-wage jobs. Nationally, 39 percent of single moms and those with young children have incomes below the poverty level. There often isn’t an option to drop out of the workforce — but there isn’t one to progress within it either.
Not nearly enough attention is being given to this crisis; not by lawmakers, not by employers and not by voters. In fact, most Washingtonians don’t even think about it until they find themselves in this very position.
In 49 out of 50 states, child care is unaffordable for the average resident. We know of one state that has taken steps to make child care accessible: Louisiana. Lower-income families there receive a tax credit when they enroll their children in high-quality care. Tax credits are also offered to some child-care providers in the program and businesses that contribute toward child-care expenses. While far from perfect — receiving a refund after already paying isn’t always an option for low-income families — the program has encouraged businesses, parents and providers to all invest in child care.
We envision working toward a future where child-care costs are standardized — and where everyone can afford high-quality care. Families should receive subsidies so that no more than 10 percent of their incomes are spent on child care. Making this a reality should be on every local lawmaker’s agenda.
The good news is that there’s a significant economic benefit, too. According to the Economic Policy Institute, providing high-quality child care “should be a core component of any strategy to boost women’s labor force participation.” The resulting increase of women’s participation by capping child-care expenditures at 10 percent of family income could boost our country’s GDP by $210 billion, according to the institute.
As moms, we’re not willing to leave $210 billion on the table. Our children’s futures literally depend on it.