Taking out Loans for Day Care?

Day care is now more expensive than college in 31 states

Photograph by Getty Images

In exactly one month, I will write my umpteenth, and final, tuition check for child care and preschool. While I'm feeling sentimental about my youngest moving up to kindergarten, I can't wait to have hundreds of dollars extra every month so that we can better cling to our middle-class life.

For more than a decade, our family has been shelling out too much money for not quite enough childcare. Like lots of families, we've figured out how to make it work well enough. Still, childcare—it's cost and limitations (closed for the summer!)—have definitely held us back financially.

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In the U.S., discussions of child care nearly always get co-opted by the fascinating (but ultimately niche) competition for spots at elite preschools in New York City, Washington, D.C. and parts of Los Angeles.

We roll our eyes and move on. But child care is a serious crisis in this country. It's mostly expensive, except when it's made free or low-cost, and only for those whose incomes are low enough to qualify. Policy makers never want to talk about child care, because too many people think subsidizing it enables freeloaders, rather than seeing it as boosting the economy. Child care workers could get higher pay (and spend more) and families could make more money (and spend more), and children could be safe and happy and prepared for school (and education would cost less). And there would be less poverty (which also costs society less).

I'm not just talking about low wage earners, either. Low-cost quality child care would benefit educated, middle-class families, too. We often read that child care is an investment in the mom's career, and that may be true. But when mom has a crappy career? Or a second baby and third baby?

The bulk of one's paycheck shouldn't be the cost of having a career. Families shouldn't have to choose between kids and careers. But that's just what is happening.

When's the last time a 6-week-old got a full-ride to Tiny Tots?

The Pew Research foundation released a report last month about the rise in the number of stay-at-home moms. More moms are opting out of employment after they have had children than in the previous two decades.

This isn't a case of Sheryl Sandberg backlash. Or of conservative values seeping into advances feminists have made over the years. It's a business decision, especially for two-income families with more than one child. In 1985, child care cost on average $87 per week (that's in today's money, not 1985 money). Today, families pay about 70 percent more or $148 per week, according to a recent Census Bureau report.

That's around 6 percent of the family income and sounds rather cheap for those of us living in the most expensive states for child care and whose earnings are solidly in the middle. For low-income (but not quite poverty-level) families, their lower child care costs (around $97 per week on average) represent almost 40 percent of the family income. In many cases, it would be more expensive to work than to give up an income until the kids enter kindergarten. It's not what most moms want. Is that what society wants?

The joke is, of course, that in five short years we'll be sending our first off to college. The weird thing about that is that college could wind up less of a burden. We live in California, one of the 31 states where average state tuition is less than average child care costs.

We've also had years to save a bit for college, we're not actually required to pay anything and our children could (fingers crossed!) wind up with scholarships. None of that is possible when it comes to families and child care. I mean, when's the last time a 6-week-old got a full-ride to Tiny Tots? One other thing: A grown child can help pay her way through college. Call us soft, but we refused to put our 3-year-olds to work to cover registration and first month fees.

The thing is we need a discussion about how to control the tuition costs at both ends of a child's life in the U.S. Some people are lobbying to control the ever-increasing costs of college. Others call for more preschool options to get children ready to enter school. Both are related in that the one—college debt—wrecks the finances of those who want to start families; and the other—child care costs—take people out of the careers they went into so much student loan debt for.

RELATED: Most Expensive Colleges in America

Federally subsidized pre-K programs (all the rage in education reform) need to be expanded, opened to all income levels and include before- and after-school child care. I'd like child care centers and preschools, most of which are independent or private, to get subsidies so that tuition could be offered on a truly sliding scale. And I'd like those subsidies to be generous enough for child care workers to earn like the professionals that they are. And, sure, even the fancy schools should qualify for assistance if they, too, offer tuition breaks for middle- and low-income kids.

Only the tiring few are still debating whether day care screws up kids and undermines mothers. (It doesn't.) The important discussion we need to have is how to create a society where families aren't going broke raising kids.

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