Child Care Costs Rival College for Many Parents

February 25, 2015

Beth Kassab
Orlando Sentinel

If I had a quarter for every time I heard someone talk about saving for college, I might have enough to pay for an Ivy League.

But hardly anyone talks about the high cost of child care from birth to age 5.

Recently, I added up how much I’ve spent for my two young children during the last six years. If my kids choose a state university (fingers-crossed!), I could end up spending less on college tuition than I spent on child care.

I am not alone.

Nor did I select a day care that only serves milk in gold-plated sippy cups.

The average cost for infants at a child care center in Orange County is $173 a week, but prices go as high as $346.

Florida is one of 31 states where the cost of infant care (babies under 1 year) is higher than the tuition at a public college, according to the most recent report by Child Care Aware.

Average tuition and fees at a Florida university is about $6,300 a year.

Infant care averages $8,300.

Let’s stop right here and address the inevitable bellyaching about how one parent should quit work and eliminate the need for child care.

Many parents simply can’t.

It’s harder than ever for families to make ends meet on a single income.

And harder still for families to get ahead and save for retirement or college with only one earner.

Child care isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Yet many people can’t afford it.

Just look at the waiting lists at the local early-learning coalitions.

In Orange County, there are 3,932 children under age 5 on the waiting list for subsidized child care. That number jumps to more than 6,000 when you include school-age children.

“Folks on our waiting list are often career people, and they are still struggling to pay for this kind of care,” said Debora Wilson, chief program officer for Community Coordinated Care for Children.

Families can make up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line — or about $36,000 for a family of four — and still qualify for a subsidy. Parents also must prove they are working or in school.

In Osceola County there are nearly 1,000 children on the waiting list.

More than 600 are waiting in Seminole County.

That adds up to more than 7,000 children in the region who don’t have access to quality child care.

And we all know that birth to age 5 is the most critical time for a child’s brain development.

Children need to be constantly talked to, read to and played with in order to fire as many brain synapses as possible.

Fewer synapses equal a child who isn’t prepared for kindergarten and likely to fall farther behind.

That’s why child care is so expensive.

Many parents, including me, seek out highly-trained teachers with degrees who know how to engage their children and expose them to things like music and foreign language during the hours we are at work.

More brain synapses equals a higher price.

The good news is that while you hardly hear anyone talk about the real cost of day care, that’s slowly changing.

And there are some good proposals to do something about the sticker shock.

The Obama administration wants to triple the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which lets parents claim some care expenses on their taxes.

The credit would be raised from $1,000 to as much as $3,000 per child under 5, depending on a family’s income. And, according to the White House plan, more families (those with incomes up to $120,000) could qualify for the maximum credit.

It’s a real middle-class tax cut.

“The tax credit has a real chance,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, which advocates for early learning programs, noting that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said they are open to the idea.

Obama is also proposing an $85 billion increase to the child care subsidy programs that are administered, along with state money, by the local early learning coalitions.

That would help move kids off those waiting lists and into child care programs. And, ultimately, leave them better prepared for college, which so many of us are trying to save for.