In WA and beyond, a child care crisis is holding parents back

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AUBURN — After a series of lower-paying jobs, Nicole Slemp finally landed one she loved. She was a secretary for Washington’s youth services department, a job that came with her own cubicle, and she had a knack for working with families in difficult situations.

Slemp expected to return to work after having her son in August. But then she and her husband started looking for child care — and doing the math.

The best option they could find was going to cost about $2,000 a month, with a long waitlist, and even the least expensive was about $1,600, still eating up most of Slemp’s salary, she says. Her husband earns about $35 an hour at a company that distributes rubber belts and hoses. Between them, they earned too much to qualify for government help.

“I really didn’t want to quit my job,” says Slemp, 33, who lives in Auburn. But, she says, she felt like she had no choice. 

“I have to just keep telling myself, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom now,’ ” she said.

The dilemma is common throughout Washington and the U.S., where high-quality child care programs can be prohibitively expensive, government assistance is limited and day care openings are sometimes hard to find at all.

In 2022, more than 1 in 10 young children had a parent who had to quit, turn down or drastically change a job in the previous year because of child care problems. And that burden falls most on mothers, who shoulder more child-rearing responsibilities and are far more likely to leave a job to care for kids.

A national Labor Department study found that a 10% increase in the median price of child care was associated with a 1% drop in the maternal workforce.

Although women’s participation in the workforce has recovered from the pandemic, reaching historic highs in December, that masks a lingering crisis among women like Slemp who lack a college degree: The gap in employment rates between moms who have a four-year degree and those who don’t has only grown.

For mothers without college degrees, a day without work is often a day without pay; they are less likely to have paid leave. And when they face an interruption in child care arrangements, their families are far more likely to adjust by giving up work, according to an analysis of census survey data by the Education Reporting Collaborative.

In interviews with reporters from the Collaborative, mothers across the country shared how the seemingly endless search for child care, and its expense, left them feeling defeated. It pushed them off career tracks, robbed them of a sense of purpose and put them in financial distress. 

Women like Slemp challenge the image of the stay-at-home mom as an affluent woman with a high-earning partner, said Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The stay-at-home moms in this country are disproportionately mothers who’ve been pushed out of the workforce because they don’t make enough to make it work financially to pay for child care,” Calarco said.

Her own research indicates three-quarters of stay-at-home moms live in households with incomes less than $50,000, and half have household incomes of less than $25,000.

Struggling near Seattle

The crisis is particularly acute in the Seattle area, where a tech-industry boom and a housing shortage have pushed prices for everything sky-high.

Before she had her son, William, Slemp was hopeful her dual-income household could absorb the extra cost of child care. She was eyeing a center up the street from her home that’s part of a national chain.

As it turned out, that center had a 10-month waitlist and charged about $2,000 a month, Slemp said — more than the rent on her two-bedroom duplex and approximately the median rate for an infant at a child care center in King County, according to Child Care Aware of Washington.

In-home providers tend to charge less than centers, but places Slemp called were also too expensive or never got back to her, probably because they were full, she said. Slemp’s grandmother said she could watch William one day a week, but providers with part-time spots were scarce. The best deal Slemp could find was a center charging $100 a day.

“That’s still $400 a week. That’s still $1,600 a month,” she said last month, helping William use a sippy cup as he watched dancing vegetables on their TV. “That’s still too much.”

Slemp contacted about 30 child care providers between her home in Auburn and her job in Bellevue before giving up, she said.

Public assistance for child care wasn’t an option because Washington’s vouchers are reserved for households making up to 60% of the state’s median income, or about $61,000 for a family of three. King County’s vouchers are for households making up to 85%, or about $86,000 for a family of three.

When Slemp was working, she and her husband made slightly too much to get help. Now they’re struggling to pay their bills on a single income. Meanwhile, their health insurance costs have soared, because Slemp had to give up her generous state benefits when she quit her job and moved the family onto her husband’s benefits. And she says her husband is working more overtime, missing out on quality time with William.

In Idaho, Alabama and Texas

Here and in other states, even parents with college degrees and higher salaries are seeing their careers upended by the high cost of child care.

When Jane Roberts gave birth in November, she and her husband, both teachers in Pocatello, Idaho, quickly realized sending baby Dennis to day care was out of the question. It was too costly, and they worried about finding a quality provider.

Their school district doesn’t offer paid medical or parental leave, so Roberts exhausted her sick leave and personal days to stay home with Dennis. In March, she returned to work and her husband took leave. By the end of the school year, they’ll have missed out on a combined nine weeks of pay. To make ends meet, they’ve borrowed money against Jane’s life insurance policy.

In the fall, Roberts won’t return to teaching. The decision was wrenching. “I’ve devoted my entire adult life to this profession,” she said.

When low- and middle-income women do find child care, the expense can become overwhelming. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has defined “affordable” child care as an arrangement that costs no more than 7% of a household budget. But the Labor Department’s study found there were fewer than 50 American counties where a family earning the median household income could obtain child care at an “affordable” price.

In Birmingham, Ala., single mother Adriane Burnett takes home about $2,800 a month as a customer service representative for a manufacturing company. She spends more than a third of that on care for her 3-year-old.  

In October, that child aged out of a program that qualified the family of three for child care subsidies. So Burnett took on more work, delivering food for DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Burnett also had to file for bankruptcy and forfeit her car because she was behind on payments. To make the deliveries possible, her 14-year-old has to babysit, and Burnett is borrowing her father’s car. The financial stress and guilt over missing time with her kids have affected her health, Burnett said. She’s had panic attacks and has fainted at work.

“My kids need me,” Burnett said, “but I also have to work.”

Even for parents who can afford child care, it can be hard to find an appropriate spot and to cope in the meantime. 

When Daizha Rioland was five months pregnant with her first child in Dallas, she posted in a Facebook group for moms that she was looking for care. She wanted a racially diverse program with a strong curriculum, but several moms warned she was already behind if she wasn’t on any waitlists.

And they were right, said Rioland, who works in communications for a nonprofit. Her daughter was 18 months old before she reached the top of a waitlist, and the tuition was so high she could only attend part time. Before that, Rioland’s parents stepped in to provide care.

It’s why Rioland put her second daughter on a waitlist long before she was born, determined to give her the best start in life.

“I’ve grown up in Dallas. I see what happens when you’re not afforded the luxury of high-quality education,” Rioland said.

A frustrating gap

When Slemp stopped by her office for the last time in February, clearing out her desk made her cry. She packed away photos, books and mementos.

“With this job, I didn’t realize how much I would connect with it and it would connect with me,” she said.

Slemp still sometimes wonders how she ended up staying at home with her son — time she cherishes but also finds disorienting.

She thought she was doing well. After stints at a water park and a call center, her state job seemed like a step toward financial stability. How could it be so hard to maintain her career, when everything seemed to be going right?

“Our country is doing nothing to try to help fill that gap,” Slemp said. As a parent, “we’re supposed to keep the population going, and they’re not giving us a chance to provide for our kids to be able to do that.”

Carly Flandro of Idaho Education News, Valeria Olivares of The Dallas Morning News and Alaina Bookman of AL.com contributed to this report. Balingit reported from Washington, D.C., and Lurye from New Orleans.

This series on how the child care crisis affects working parents — with a focus on solutions — was produced by the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, including The Seattle Times, AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News and The Post & Courier.

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

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