As my children grow, so do my grocery bills. Meanwhile, the checks I write each month for housing, clothing, and utilities have steadily increased. Like most families we know, we constantly have to make do with less.
Child care remains a constant source of stress and struggle. In North Carolina, child care costs an average of $8,500 per child each year. In more urban areas that number can reach even higher, and the average family of four spends a whopping 20% of their household budget on child care. I temporarily had to step out of the job market because I couldn’t afford child care; I owed $2,500 a month in full-time child care costs– which constituted 90% of my take-home salary.
Across the state, low-income families balance their budgets largely with the help of childcare subsidies. Many can’t shoulder the financial load of an entire family on a single income. Two parents working full-time and earning the average median income of $46,000 a year will have to turn over a whopping 37% percent of their pre-tax income to child care, just to be able to show up for work every day.
The situation is even more dire for single moms, most of whom earn well less than the state average. While many can cobble together care situations from friends or relatives, many more are left with few choices, and turn to child care subsidies to help.
A recent release from the Shriver Report pointed to the high cost of childcare as acting as yet another factor that keeps women “on the brink.” Researchers compiled a list of the seven things the federal government could do to make child care accessible and affordable for every family.
Many of the Shriver Report suggestions have actually been implemented in North Carolina– but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still more work left to do. Women AdvaNCe has built on the Shriver Report to identify how to improve child care systems in our state. Here’s our take on the seven ways we can do right by NC moms and their kids:
- Fund every single Pre-K seat. North Carolina boasts an excellent Pre-K program that absolutely enriches those it serves. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of kids don’t benefit from the program; they have been deferred to neverending wait lists. Although NC’s Pre-K programs last for only five hours each day, these five hours allow parents to work or look for jobs for free. Many Pre-K programs offer supplemental hours so that parents can work all day, knowing that their children are safe and loved. Courts have ruled that North Carolina has a responsibility to provide Pre-K to all children who qualify, but year after year, that requirement does not get met. If the state budget prioritized funding 100% of qualifying Pre-K students, families would flourish.
- Use state money to supplement Early Head Start. This program provides care for infants and children through the age of three. Currently, only 1,400 children are enrolled in this program, but many more could enroll if the state provided funding. By giving low-income parents the resources they need to tend to their babies’ emotional and physical well being, we meet our community promise to provide for even the smallest among us. Families who participate in Early Head Start report fewer problems with child nutrition, and children receive help as soon as they need it, instead of waiting until Kindergarten, when kids start public school.
- Increase the amount of child care subsidy funds available. More than 83,000 children receive child care in NC only because of subsidies. If parents make less than 75% of the state median income– around $4,000 a month for a family of four– they qualify for decreased child care costs. Parents who qualify can pay a flat 8%, 9%, or 10% of their household income on child care, depending on how much they make. This can mean $400 a month instead of $1,000, a change that will keep food on the table. North Carolina needs to expand this program so that it reaches more families without placing them on a years-long waiting list.
- Supplement federal child care funds more aggressively. Last year during sequestration, some Head Start locations closed their waiting lists and faced closing their doors. North Carolina’s families should not be beholden to federal whims when it comes to childcare. The North Carolina General Assembly needs to establish a trust fund that kicks in when federal subsidies disappear, so that local providers never face a gap in funding.
- Incentivize flexible care. Many parents work outside the normal 9-to-5, yet child care options are often limited to daylight hours. North Carolina should increase funding for centers that serve workers who work long shifts or weekends. More than that, the state must ensure food subsidies are available for these centers as well, so that children can eat three meals a day and two snacks, instead of the two meals and two snacks that they currently receive.
- Allow parents to continue using subsidies, even if income increases slightly. A mom who receives a 10% raise may no longer qualify for child care, even when that 10% cannot cover the cost of child care bills. This creates a situation where children lose needed care and a parent gets penalized for success in their job. North Carolina must ensure that parents have flexible options—possibly paying a higher percentage of income if they receive a raise—so that children don’t lose out.
- Advocate on the national stage for North Carolina’s children. Congress has considered several bills that would alter the money NC gets for child care subsidies. Our elected officials need to prioritize this, and need to make sure those in Washington know our needs. The long after-effects of the recession mean more families need more help every year. As those funds disappear, so do our employees’ chances to rejoin the workforce. A mom with no childcare may choose living in poverty over searching for, and taking, a job that doesn’t come close to paying the bills.
How much does child care cost in your community? Have you made any hard choices when it comes to balancing the bills against your career? How do you think North Carolina can even the playing field so that all moms can go to work and all kids can have care?