Child care costs rival college tuition

Annual costs for infant day care in Ohio rival tuition at four-year state colleges, and rising expenses continue to strain family budgets which can result in parents placing their children in lower-quality care, a Dayton Daily News analysis found.

Child care is more affordable in Ohio than 39 other states, but it remains the largest expense of many working parents. Costs can be especially burdensome to single parents and working families with multiple children.

Quality child care can make a significant difference in a child’s development. It helps children learn important social, emotional, intellectual and physical skills.

“Quality care has long-lasting impact on a child’s development, behavior and cognitive abilities,” said Renuka Mayadev, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund — Ohio. “Quality care is related to higher academic achievement.”

But some smaller child care providers are not regulated and are not subject to oversight, which increases the chances that children will receive low-quality care, experts said.

In 2011, infant care at centers in Ohio on average cost $7,889 per year, according to an August report by Child Care Aware of America. By comparison, annual tuition at Wright State University is about $8,354.

At centers across the state, parents on average need to pay $6,376 annually for care for children who are 4 years old, and $4,732 for school-age children, the report said.

Infant day care expenses exceeded one-third of the median annual income of single mothers in Ohio ($20,765), the report said. For two-parent families, infant care expenses exceeded 10 percent of their annual income. Many parents can spend nearly as much for infant care as they spend each year on rent. It can get really expensive when working parents have multiple children who require care.

The availability of inexpensive child care is increasingly important because fewer than one in three children have a full-time, stay-at-home parent, according to a report by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. In 1975, more than half of children had a full-time, stay-at-home parent.

Most parents need to work for financial reasons, and they cannot afford to stay home and raise their children full-time, experts said.

“Most kids are a child of a single parent, or both of their parents are working,” said Sarah Glynn, a policy analyst with the center. “You have more women in the workforce than there used to be, and you have more women working full-time.”

Some parents pay for day care, and Ohio was the 11th least expensive state in the nation for center-based care in 2011, the report said. New York had the most expensive infant care, which on average ran about $14,009.

Options are limited

But even in Ohio, the price is too high for many parents, and they have limited options.

Many parents rely on family members to help care for their children. Sometimes neighbors or friends help out.

But parents often turn to family home providers, which are typically less pricey than centers, but the quality of the programs are unknown because of a lack of oversight, Child Care Aware said.

Some family home providers do a good job of creating a healthy and educational setting, and some parents prefer this option because they offer comforting, home-like environments, experts said. In Ohio, infant care at a family home on average costs $6,574 annually, about 17 percent less than center-based care, Child Care Aware said.

But in Ohio, a family home care provider is only required to become licensed if it has more than six children.

Licensed centers must follow health and safety laws, and they are regularly inspected. They must also comply with regulations about staff requirements, space requirements, nutrition, infant care and program equipment safety.

Family home providers with fewer than seven children are not required to receive training in how to care for children and prepare them for school. Also, they are not required to undergo criminal background checks.

“We really feel that health and safety (regulations) and minimum training are critical for children to be safe and in a setting that promotes a healthy development,” said Grace Reef, Child Care Aware’s chief of policy and evaluation.

Many children are entering kindergarten without the skills they need to succeed because they were not in quality child care settings, said Lorna Chouinard, director of Miami Valley Services for 4C for Children, which is the state-designated child care resource and referral agency for this region.

As a result, children end up behind in their reading comprehension by the third grade, which increases the chances they will drop out of high school, she said.

“We know high-level early learning makes the most impact on high-need families and those are the ones most often who have difficulty accessing care,” she said.

Teenagers who as young children were in high-quality child care settings performed better on academic and cognitive tests, and they were less likely to report negative behaviors of acting out when compared to teens who received low-quality child care, according to a 2010 analysis of a long-running study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Ohio’s Step Up to Quality

Low-income parents may be eligible for state-subsidized child care. Income eligibility for a family of three is 125 percent of the federal poverty level — $23,172 or less. Any family home providers that receive state subsidies must be licensed or certified by the counties in which they are located. Officials said the state will eventually require all child care providers that receive subsidies to participate in Ohio’s Step Up to Quality program, which recognizes early care and education programs that exceed the minimum standards of licensing. Step Up to Quality is based on staff qualifications and other evidence-based benchmarks that increases the quality of early learning programs.

Child care advocates said there are no easy solutions to rising child care costs. They said increasing subsidies would help, but federal and state budget cuts make that unlikely. Reef said alternative funding sources are needed to defray the high costs of quality care.

“Parents are tapped out and they can’t pay more,” she said. “This is not an issue about poor families — this is an issue most families face.”

Chouinard said parents can easily identify care centers that participate in the Step Up to Quality program. She said her organization’s counselors can assist parents with referrals and help them find quality care providers.

Kary Brigger, 34, of Springboro, is the mother of three children: Mason, 9, Carson, 6 and Kacey, 19 months. Brigger and her husband both work, and Kacey attends day care full-time, while Mason and Carson are placed in day care before and after school.

Brigger said the center’s staff are educated, friendly and well trained, and her children benefit from a planned curriculum and schedule. She said the care is pricey, but it is worth the cost.

“Yes, it is expensive, but how can you place a price tag on care for your kids?” she said.”If you can’t be there to watch them during the day, then you’re going to want the best possible care around.”

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