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Seattle Has Some of the Least Affordable Child Care in the Country, And It Hurts

Washington was recently ranked sixth in the nation for least affordable child care — from cost to career, here's how it affects young families

Malia Jacobson

Published on: February 23, 2016

After Michelle Bennett gave birth to her now 4-year-old daughter, going back to work made sense, largely because she had low-cost or free child care available to her, provided by family members. But the arrival of another daughter the following year changed everything. Caring for two kids younger than 2 years old wasn’t feasible for Bennett’s family members, putting her in the market for center-based care. 

Sticker shock ensued. The Des Moines mom soon learned that her family would have to shell out about $2,000 a month for full-time care for two children, an amount nearly equal to her take-home pay. So she traded her job at a skilled nursing facility for stay-at-home parenthood, a different kind of job that definitely has its perks (days full of whimsical toddler antics, for instance), but lacks others — namely, health benefits and a paycheck. 

Whittling the family budget down to one income hasn’t been easy, Bennett says. “It’s been really tough financially. We went from making very good money to having to be very frugal.” But the alternative — one parent’s paycheck almost entirely eaten by day-care costs — was just too hard to stomach.

She’s not alone. Child Care Aware of Washington recently ranked Washington sixth in the nation for least affordable child care for infants and 10th in the nation for least affordable preschool care. The December 2015 report, which analyzed cost of care by measuring what percentage of families’ income it took to get care, pegs child care as the biggest expense, after housing, for Washington families, beating out food, transportation costs and other necessities.

Full-time care for an infant consumes nearly 15 percent of the state’s average annual income of $85,038 for married couples; the government deems care “affordable” when it costs less than 10 percent of a family’s annual income. 

Parents statewide share Bennett’s struggle, but those in King County are being hit the hardest. While King County incomes are approximately 22 percent higher than the state average, Seattle parents still pay disproportionately higher rates — on average, 31 percent higher than the rest of the state. At nearly $13,000 per year, the average cost of a year of infant child care in Seattle is more than a year of tuition at the University of Washington.

While child care is pricey, stepping out of the workforce comes at a steep price, too, says Robin Lester, CEO of Child Care Aware of Washington, a statewide, community-based resource and referral network for parents and professional association for child-care providers.

“Having one parent stay home works well for some families. But when one parent has to stay home because child care is too expensive, that parent’s ability to earn and take care of the family long-term is diminished, and the economy loses a productive worker,” Lester says.

Case in point: Women who take between four and 12 months off after childbirth are 15 percent less likely to get promoted. Opting out of the workforce for two years cuts earnings by 10 percent.

“Right now, too many organizations reward people who can put work first [for] their entire career. When you take a few years off, it’s a black mark,” says Jessica DeGroot, founder of Philadelphia-based ThirdPath Institute, an organization promoting an integrated approach to work and family life. 

Pricey child care hurts lower-income and single-parent families acutely. Washington single moms spend up to 50 percent of their income for child care, and although state child-care subsidies are available via the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), consistently qualifying for assistance isn’t a sure bet. Applicants file monthly income reports, and those with fluctuating incomes — such as food service employees or workers with seasonal or temp jobs or who freelance — might get aid one month and be up a metaphorical creek without a paddle the next.

Kelly Doscher of Ballard was a single mom waiting tables in 2010 when she was suddenly cut off from a DSHS child-care subsidy for exceeding the monthly income limit by $7 the previous month. The swift stop put her in a bind — she needed her restaurant paycheck more than ever, but struggled to pay for the care she needed in order to work.

This year, families can apply for a yearlong child-care subsidy to avoid the month-to-month instability that Doscher and others have faced. “Beginning July 1, 2016, we can work with families for 12-month eligibility, which is a change to our current system. A child would be eligible for subsidy for an entire year, despite changes to a family’s economic situation,” says Stephanie Liden, communications manager with the Washington State Department of Early Learning

Another move meant to increase quality, upping educational requirements for providers, also potentially increases costs to parents. Early Achievers, the state’s child-care quality rating system, rewards higher education, awarding extra points to providers whose teachers and directors have associates and bachelors degrees.   

Former preschool teacher Julia Hosack of Edmonds knows the struggles these providers face. At the preschool where she worked for years, parents constantly complained about high tuition rates — but many of the teachers struggled to get by on their low wages. “Most of the teachers who had children were on state assistance themselves,” says Hosack, who put off starting a family of her own because of the cost of child care. She knew her wages as a center teacher wouldn’t stretch to cover the cost of day care and preschool for her own kids.

“It was too expensive for our center to provide health insurance to its employees,” Hosack says. She couldn’t stand “the thought of having my own kids and not being able to provide for them.”

According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 15 percent of U.S. child-care workers live below the poverty line, and they are less likely to receive health care and benefits than other types of employees. 

The economics of preschool (which children typically start at age 3 and which can encompass not only partial-day programs but also full-day care until kids reach kindergarten age) can seem confounding, Whiting says. Even with high tuition, most child-care centers have razor-thin profit margins. “You have to get into this business because you really want to see children succeed. You don’t do it to get rich.”

Still, the news isn’t all bad, Whiting notes. “A lot of people are working very hard on the Seattle pre-K pilot,” a program approved by Seattle voters in 2014 that aims to provide free or low-cost child care for 2,000 children in 100 classrooms by 2018. “Once it’s rolled out, that program could provide a model for the rest of the state to follow.”

Whiting says that the scarcity of suitable child-care spaces could be approached creatively: If developers could be incentivized to create spaces that could be licensed for child care, providers would have more options, which would benefit families and children.

Meanwhile some parents are finding out-of-the-box ways to make working work. Last year, Laurie and Brian Foley of Rainier switched to nontraditional shifts — she works 3:30 a.m.–noon in insurance claims, and he works 3 p.m.–1 a.m. in manufacturing — to avoid shelling out for child care for their 6-year-old son.

Andrea and Robert Cantu of Burien hired an au pair through Au Pair in America; at about $16,000 per year, the option is hardly cheap, but still costs less than half of the $38,000 they’d pay for preschool and infant care for their three young boys. Nanny shares, flexible schedules and care provided by family members help ease the burden for other families.

But until affordable child care is a reality for more parents, some will opt out of their jobs, as Michelle Bennett did. She may want to go back to “the exciting, adult world” of work when her girls are in school, but for now, she’s staying home.  

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