Finding affordable, accessible and high-quality childcare these days feels like a fruitless quest for the holy grail. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get two of those three factors: One option might be affordable and accessible but not high-quality; another might be accessible and high-quality but not affordable. Finding a solution that meets all three? Nearly impossible.
Childcare in some U.S. cities can cost as much as (or more than) a mortgage, and even if a family is able to afford the high rates, finding a slot for kids under 5 is increasingly scarce. Well before the pandemic, parents—primarily moms—were being forced to leave the workforce as a result of both childcare cost and availability.
And it's still not getting any better. Motherly’s fifth annual State of Motherhood survey results show that 46% of currently unemployed millennial and Gen Z moms who left the workforce in 2021 cite childcare issues as the reason why they left. It was the top reason why mothers* changed employers or altered their employment status last year.
“I cannot put my child in childcare because to pay for quality care would require so much of my earnings that it would not even be worth working, especially since I have another on the way. I would spend more than I earn on day care.”Addie R.
This isn’t a novel issue. We’ve been heading down this road for a while. A 2015 Washington Post poll found that nearly 75% of mothers and 50% of fathers said they’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs or left their jobs to care for their kids.
Childcare has long been seen as problematic for parents: both expensive and hard to find. For years, the U.S. childcare sector has been an outmoded steam engine, lumbering along a rusty track on wheels that are dangerously off-kilter.
The pandemic caused the wheels to come off altogether. Two years later, moms are still the ones patching it back together.
The current childcare model is unsustainable
In an ideal world, childcare should be viewed as a public good, like public schools and libraries. It’s infrastructure that’s critical to supporting the economy and ensuring a stable workforce both now and in the future.
“It's an economic imperative to provide access to childcare,” says Amanda M. McDougald Scott, PhD, a community and policy researcher who has a doctorate in International Family Community Studies and is the director of Artemis Consulting.
It’s expensive, but it should be expensive. Childcare providers should be able to offer a low student to teacher ratio, trained educators and spacious classrooms with safe access to areas for outdoor play and learning. All of those factors can drive up the cost, of course. But parents shouldn’t be the ones buckling under that burden.
“I believe that childcare should be an extension of the education system we already provide for kids in the U.S. It should be paid for by the taxpayers. It’s really the only sustainable way to go about this.”Dr. Amanda M. McDougald Scott
Recent estimates suggest that childcare spending typically makes up at least 13% of the average American family’s income, with some figures showing it could cost around $18,000 per year for a family of four.
Motherly’s State of Motherhood survey results show that more than one-third of mothers (33%) who are paying for childcare say it often causes them financial stress.
In contrast, childcare workers barely make a living wage (the median wage of a childcare worker is just $13.22 per hour, or about $27,490 per year, per May 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). That salary is only just above the federal poverty level for a family of four. On top of low wages, many don’t receive benefits, like health insurance.
Even given that, there’s still a big gap between what families pay and what it actually costs to care for a child. According to the Center for American Progress, the true cost of licensed childcare for an infant is 42% more than what programs currently charge families.
“It’s just not a sustainable model,” says Dr. McDougald Scott. Childcare providers already have a tough time retaining workers at low pay, making available slots even harder to come by due to staff shortages. To raise wages to better retain staff, it would force them to pass on even more costs to families.
“I live in the Minneapolis area and the waitlists for infant childcare are extremely long—you have to get on as soon as you are pregnant,” says mom Molly B. “Because of that I worked part-time and paid family members [for care] for the days I worked. Once my oldest started kindergarten, I was able to get my younger daughter in full-time preschool. It’s a huge portion of my wages; almost half of my monthly take-home pay.”
Without state and federal assistance for providers to offset costs, that means families may have to choose between earning an income or keeping a job, notes Dr. McDougald Scott in an article for Motherly.
Still reeling from the pandemic
When the pandemic hit in 2020, childcare centers were forced to close and then had to quickly pivot to reopen with all new safety measures after lockdown orders were lifted. Families are still feeling the effects of reduced hours, smaller class sizes and increased costs to keep kids and workers safe, like buying new personal protective equipment.
Childcare workers were especially impacted by the pandemic, notes Dr. McDougald Scott. “They were forced to choose between going to work during a pandemic or staying home to take care of their own children, or trying to find other childcare so they could go to work. On top of that, they were not seen as essential workers in some states, so they didn’t get any of the benefits that other essential workers received. And they were also risking their own health through potential exposures to the virus every single day, most likely without having employer-provided insurance.”
As a result, childcare workers left the industry in droves. The workforce is still 11% below February 2020 numbers, whereas the labor market as a whole is just down 1%. According to recent data from LinkedIn, many childcare workers—95% of them women, and more than one-third people of color—have permanently left the industry in favor of other jobs, mainly in education.
In an industry with already high turnover rates, that absence feels acute.
Some childcare providers were never able to reopen their doors, and those that did are still having a tough time finding and retaining staff and have needed to limit their operating hours.
“We started my son in day care in January 2020. They were closed from March through May and we sent him back in June. But now we can't send our two kids full-time because our day care can't find more staff. That's been a struggle [while] working from home with two littles.”Katie N.
New Covid safety protocols, while necessary, also greatly impacted families. Lengthy quarantine requirements meant that certain classrooms or entire centers needed to be closed for extended periods due to a Covid exposure or outbreak.
Even now, quarantines are still in place for many early childhood providers, due to the fact that kids under 5 aren’t yet able to be vaccinated—they’re considered a high-risk group for virus infection. If you have a job that isn’t flexible with your child being home for anywhere from five to 14 days at the drop of a hat due to a potential exposure at day care, you’re put in a tough position.
How moms are paying the price
General instability, lack of availability, plus high costs is a formula for added stress on already-exhausted working parents.
That math means moms may have to make a tough decision about whether to keep working. Our survey results show that the stress and financial burden of childcare has made more than half of moms (58%) moms consider leaving the workforce. This is especially true for Hispanic moms (63%) and Black moms (61%).
Cutting back to part-time or quitting altogether may be the more feasible option, given that in some cases, mothers are essentially paying for the privilege to work.
It’s important to note that the cost of childcare is just one of the many costs that go into being able to work. “There are so many upfront costs of having a job that people don’t think about beyond childcare, like transportation, hair care, cosmetics and eating out,” notes Dr. McDougald Scott. “Considering all the factors, and especially for low-wage earners, it’s likely to be less expensive and less burdensome overall to just not work.”
But having a reliable source of outside childcare can make a huge difference for moms. Seventy-one percent of moms reported in our survey that they felt greater satisfaction with their childcare situation when they were able to outsource some care. When moms don’t work and serve as the primary childcare provider, 42% of stay-at-home moms say they’re dissatisfied with their childcare situation, and 39% report higher levels of burnout than their working counterparts.
“Between the pandemic, waiting lists at day cares and no family nearby, mapping out childcare weighs on my shoulders. I pride myself on my work ethic, and on days we don’t have childcare, I am both a mediocre employee and a mediocre mom—I worry about making avoidable mistakes.”Hayli C.
How it can get better
Right now, it feels like families have to simply bear this burden until their youngest child reaches age 5, at which point they can enter kindergarten at a public school. Mothers with older children (age 5 to 14) have a higher labor force participation rate than all women.
That’s a long five years (at minimum) of lost wages, added stress and potential burnout for families, especially when inflation is at the highest point in decades and having two income-earning parents is increasingly becoming the key to remaining a member of the middle class.
The cost of leaving the workforce follows parents for life, states the Center for American Progress.
“After taking into account the potential wage growth and lost retirement savings over time, a parent who leaves the workforce loses up to four times their annual salary per year.”Center for American Progress
That shows in our survey results, too, where mothers have become even more pessimistic about combining a career with motherhood in the past year. In 2022, 23% of working moms say they don’t think it possible to effectively combine work and motherhood (up from 17% in 2021). Among non-working moms, 30% say it’s impossible to have a career and kids (up from 26% in 2021).
Not attending day care or preschools led by educators trained in early childhood education affects kids, too. “The cognitive development that happens between birth and age 8 is the most important of your whole life,” states Dr. McDougald Scott. “It has lifelong implications. I always say kindergarten readiness is workforce readiness because an investment in early childhood education reaps much longer benefits than people realize.”
So what can be done to get the train back on track, and make childcare sustainable for providers and families? It comes down to government subsidies and employer support, says Dr. McDougald Scott.
What the government can do
- Expanding who is eligible for workforce housing to include childcare workers, which would directly impact and improve the lives of childcare workers, notes Dr. McDougald Scott.
- Offering paid family leave. “That really, really helps all mothers, whether they’re working or in the childcare industry or not.”
- Broadening access to health care by expanding Medicaid to those at 200% of the federal poverty level, or making a special case just for childcare workers.
“These factors don’t have anything to do with overhauling the childcare system altogether but are going to allow childcare centers to be able to provide a better environment and be able to better retain their workforce, which means there will be more slots and more availability for families,” says Dr. McDougald Scott.
What employers can do
- Offer more flexible hours to allow parents to work around childcare schedules.
- Enable employees to work from home, which cuts back on other job-related expenses like transportation, work-appropriate clothing and eating out.
Many moms want to work—and our economy needs working mothers. “Anytime an employer can provide support for childcare, whether that’s through a subsidy or another program, it can help families keep working,” Dr. McDougald Scott notes. Our survey results show that 48% of currently employed mothers report being unsatisfied with how their employer handles flexibility with their schedules/time off needs, and 55% cite that their employer can better support them with longer, paid maternity leave.
What parents can do in the meantime
Though we’ve seen some progress already on these fronts, it’ll take time for governments and employers to catch up to society’s needs. In the meantime, ask your employer for more support or flexibility around childcare as part of your benefits conversation. Additionally, get involved in advocating for changes around childcare.
According to our survey, affordable and accessible childcare is the biggest issue moms say they support in 2022, but people need to push their elected officials to enact these changes, states Dr. McDougald Scott.
Childcare is a necessity for families—and the economy at large—but unfortunately, the issues won’t get better anytime soon without more active political involvement from moms across the country demanding change.
“Upcoming midterm elections has meant that progress on the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan [which initially included provisions for paid family leave and universal pre-K, as well as continuation of the child tax credit] has stalled, but unfortunately, this is a political issue that has economic consequences.”
Motherly designed and administered this survey through Motherly’s subscribers list, social media and partner channels, resulting in more than 17,000 responses creating a clean, unweighted base of 10,001 responses. This report focuses on the Gen X cohort of 1197 respondents, millennial cohort of 8,558 respondents, and a Gen Z cohort of 246 respondents. Edge Research weighted the data to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the US female millennial cohort based on US Census data.