The Moms Who Can’t Afford to Work, But Can’t Afford to Quit

woman holding an empty wallet.

When child care costs exceed a parent’s take-home pay, how are families supposed to break even?

The exorbitant cost of child care is keeping moms and working families from fulfilling their full potential.

It’s been a tough year for Jennifer Noonan. A mother of four kids, ages 3, 5, 11 and 13, Noonan works 30 hours a week making $15 per hour as a skills trainer for a group home facility for children and youth with behavioral issues. Her take-home pay is between $1,200 and $1,300 a month. Child care expenses for her two youngest is $1,100 per month–more than she can afford.

So Noonan, 31, who qualified for financial aid but hasn’t yet received the benefit, uses her student loan and grant money to pay for child care–which allows her to keep working and stay in school. “Had I not had that, I would not have been able to afford it, and I would not be working right now,” she says. Her partner has health issues and cannot watch the younger children, but he is able to be home with the older two while they are in remote school.

Noonan is not alone in struggling to pay for child care. In the United States, most parents cover the cost of child care on their own–and there are few subsidized programs through the state or workplace. Low-income families who qualify for child care assistance rarely receive it. Of the 13.5 million who qualify based on federal guidelines, only 1.9 million actually receive any form of a subsidy, which is about 1 in 6 eligible children.

Many middle class families struggle to pay for the full cost of child care on their take-home salary and make too much to qualify for aid. Georgia Allen learned first-hand how hard it was to find child care when she started making too much money to qualify for assistance, and realized she was trapped in an untenable system, where earning more meant she would take home less. “I knew from experience if I let the public benefit system decide how far I am eligible to go, I wouldn’t meet the aspirations I had for myself or my daughter,” she said in an email to Working Mother. She began looking into informal arrangements, and realized there was potential there for more families to utilize their existing networks.

Informal networks, such as relying on friends, extended family and unlicensed in-home daycares can offset some costs, but these ad hoc arrangements can be difficult for parents who seek consistent, quality, affordable child care options, especially for younger children who cannot be left alone. Noonan, who grew up in foster care, says she cannot rely on her family, but she does live in Section 8 housing and relies on the community there for assistance when she needs it.

“We have people who look out for each other,” said Noonan of her Section 8 housing complex in Portland, Oregon. “Every complex has this little community.” During the pandemic, the children in the complex still played together, the parents pitching in to watch one another’s kids.
“All of us were like, either you are going to get [COVID-19] or not, and we aren’t going to suffer because of it.”

Such informal arrangements for child care are common, said Elliot Haspel, author of Crawling Behind: American Childcare and How to Fix It, and a program officer for education policy at the Robins Foundation. It’s hard to get exact numbers on how many people rely on such setups.

“It’s logical,” said Haspel. “If you are making $25K a year, and you aren’t going to go through the bureaucratic maze to get a child care subsidy, you need someone to watch your child.” For parents who need to work, child care options come down to a friend, family or neighbor or informal, unlicensed caregiver.

Allen ultimately created her own safety net for child care options, working with a community development organization to set up a round-the-clock, in-home child care network. She encourages women to formalize the informal systems they rely upon for care, not just for children, but for the disabled and elderly too. “I finally realized there really weren’t any systems/intentional networks to help women, specifically women of color, from low-wealth communities,” she said in an email.

For parents–often mothers–on the fence about staying in the workforce even while most of their earnings go toward child care, there are costs to exiting the labor force too. The Center for American Progress has a calculator to reveal the “hidden costs” to a woman who quits work to care for children. Such “off ramping” comes at a steep price, of lost wages, lost wage growth, and lost retirement and benefits. A woman making $40,000 annually who off-ramps for a single year faces six figures ($146K) in income loss. Five years of missed work and it’s over $600K. Ten years, and it’s seven figures.

Of course, there are other reasons families decide on their particular arrangements.
Some women prefer work to stay-at-home parenting. Some careers have less flexibility or are more time-consuming, requiring one spouse to have a more flexible, less demanding job. Some centers provide especially excellent care for children, which may be worth the high price tag.

For Noonan, staying in school was crucial as a step for her to get out of poverty. “I grew up in foster care,” said Noonan, who is studying to be a social worker. “I’ve been surviving my whole life, and now as a mother as well. The goal is that I will lift my kids and myself out of poverty as long as I keep pushing through and I gain my degree. I’ll keep doing it, even if I can’t afford it.”

The American Families Plan, the second part of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda, is expected to include $225 billion for child care funding, $225 billion for paid family and medical leave and $200 billion for universal pre-kindergarten instruction.

Additional funding is one way to improve the child care situation in the United States, but so is changing the framework with how child care delivery currently operates. “We need to start treating child care as a right and not like a welfare program,” said Haspel. A mother like Noonan has a number of bureaucratic hurdles to jump through to receive the child care subsidy, which is paid to the child care provider. Haspel cites stories of mothers finding employment, applying for vouchers, and then missing so much work due to child care needs just while waiting for the voucher to be approved. And in its current form, the vouchers do not pay enough to cover the cost of care, nor to pay child care workers a living wage. (Even though the demand for child care is high, the average child care worker earns $11 an hour.)

Low wages also contribute to the high turnover in the industry–which Haspel says is 40 to 50 percent per year–and can provide instability for young children who seek to bond with caregivers. “Compare [$11 an hour] to Amazon, who pays $15 an hour as a starting wage. You might prefer to work with children, but if you’re trying to feed your family, it’s not a hard decision. Every time an Amazon fulfillment center opens, a child care center director starts weeping.”

In early 2021, Noonan was approved for a child care subsidy. This would take her cost of child care from $1,100 to possibly nothing–she is waiting to learn what her co-pay will be. However, even with the subsidy, her child care provider closes at 5 p.m., while her work hours go until 11 p.m. “[The subsidy] lifts a weight off my shoulder,” she said. “I am still low income even with that subsidy, but it also means that I am not using student loans and not putting myself further in debt to cover the cost of child care.”

The benefit takes a month to process, so Noonan is still waiting to actually receive it, but she is cautiously optimistic that this can be a turning point in working, going to school and raising kids. The starting salary for a social worker in her state is about $4,000, but can climb to nearly $6,000, Noonan said. She just needs to get there, and have child care covered in the meantime.

“Until my child care worker has gotten that payment,” Noonan said, “I don’t believe it’s real.”


When child care costs exceed a parent’s take-home pay, how are families supposed to break even?

The exorbitant cost of child care is keeping moms and working families from fulfilling their full potential.

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