Day Care Through The Nose

Children reading at a Head Start center in St. Louis, MO.

In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about Maddy, a young single mother in Portland, Maine, who used her boyfriend’s sister as a babysitter. She paid this babysitter fifty dollars a week, instead of paying ninety dollars for a “real day care center.” [1] Affordable child care is a problem, especially for single-parent families living on a meager salary.

Parents bracketed in the lower class (even those in two-parent households) must have jobs to pay the bills. This means that their children must attend some sort of child care while their parents are away. Most national organizations suggest that children not be left home alone until they are at least twelve. Yet there is a catch-twenty-two here: to make enough money to pay for childcare, parents need jobs. To get a job, your children need childcare services. What comes first? Ehrenreich found herself in a similar (yet slightly less dire) situation when she described her need for both work and a place to live: “I need a job and an apartment, but to get a job I need an address and a phone number and to get an apartment it help to have evidence of stable employment.” [2]

If parents are lucky enough to find childcare, how much will it cost them? The Head Start program is an option for those who meet the federal poverty level eligibility requirements. As of 2008, a family of four must earn less than $21,000 per year to qualify. [3] However, for those not under the federal poverty level, the average day care cost in the United States is $8,150 per year for infants and toddlers. [4] The price is slightly lower for pre-schoolers. By visiting the Child Care Aware site, I used their nifty budgeting option to find out that if I lived in Massachusetts, had one child, and worked in a job that paid $30,000 a year, I would be deep in the red by now.

What happens to single mothers (or fathers, or even two-parent families) who are forced to get a job, but are unable to pay for childcare during the eight (or more) hours they are gone? It is illegal and dangerous to leave children alone for extended periods of time. Shifting children from place to place (grandmother, friend, babysitter, etc) results in under-developed emotional capabilities in children; if they cannot be at home with at least one parent, it is best for their development to attend an accredited childcare facility. Yet these places are rarely affordable to people living near the poverty line (and even many in the middle class), and both children and parents suffer for it. As Ehrenreich’s experience documented, a single person has a hard time “getting by” in America. But what happens when you have children counting on you, too?

[1] Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001), 80.

[2] Ehrenreich, 54.

[3] Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, “Head Start Family Income Guidelines, 2008,” <;.

[4] National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, “2008 Price of Childcare,” < >.

3 thoughts on “Day Care Through The Nose

  1. I worked for a YMCA day care for two years in high school (it was actually the same day care I wen to in elementary school) and I saw how much day care could burden parents. The rule at this particular program was that kids had to be picked up by 6 pm and there would be an extra charge for every 5 minutes after that. Trust me, there needed to be a rule like that, but I saw a lot of parents freak out when they were late. There were plenty of times I wanted to let it go, but A.) I was 16 and didn’t want to break the rules and B.) I didn’t want to be taken advantage of.

  2. Even many times in two-income families, most if not all of the second income (particularly in lower-paying jobs) simply goes toward daycare costs. In a single-parent household…I don’t even want to think about it. Family members may cost less, but have their own obligations and may not be as reliable/knowledgeable as an established, licensed facility. If your sister-in-law is babysitting for a (relatively) dirt cheap rate, then accepts a higher-paying office job, well, too bad for you.

    I don’t pretend to know the logistics/costs/feasibility of running an on-site or company-subsidized daycare, but it seems that workers might be more productive if they were secure in the knowledge that their kids were being taken care of by responsible professionals, that their child care bills weren’t going to bankrupt them in a given week/month, and that they weren’t going to have to rush across town to/from work to pick up their kids before being penalized in some way.

  3. After reading your post, I wanted to really understand what $8,150 per child meant. It’s roughly $156/week and $624/month, which is less than the cost of a family’s groceries for the week. Add multiple children into the equation, and that financial strain only increases. Especially for parents with additional costs like auto bills, student loans, cell phone bills, mortgages, etc – how do they do it?

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