Yunyi Dai/For WAMU
D.C. has the highest cost of infant childcare in the nation, making it difficult for some parents to justify returning to work.
Yunyi Dai/For WAMU
Alex, a consultant and former Marine living in Alexandria, learned she was pregnant with her first child last year. She and her husband had been planning to start a family for some time, making spreadsheets of all the expenses that might come with caring for an infant. But their plans were scuttled at an early doctor's visit.
"It hit the fan the minute he was like, 'Oh, there's two heartbeats,'" says Alex, who asked that WAMU use only her first name as she considers whether to return to her current employer.
Not only was their first family addition now two, the twins were sharing the same amniotic sac — a risky complication to the pregnancy. Alex required regular monitoring. She spent five weeks on bed rest before delivering her daughters at 32 weeks in September. The twins spent their first couple months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Alex's military-provided healthcare covered her medical expenses, and her employer paid for several months of leave. But her workplace will not pay for child care once Alex returns to work in a few weeks — expenses that could total as much as $4,000 per month, unrelated to any medical issues.
"My net income would be so minimal that it doesn't make a lot of sense to even work anymore," she says.
Alex isn't alone. As D.C.-area parents contend with some of the highest child care costs in the country — annual fees in the District average about $24,000 for infant care and $19,000 for toddler care — some are deciding to opt out of the workforce, forgoing a salary and avoiding high child care costs.
The Cost Of Child Care
Families in the region have several options when it comes to child care, but none come cheap. Lower-cost options include home-based centers (about $17,000 annually) and nanny shares ($20-$25 an hour, divided among participating families). On the higher end are au pairs (about $20,000 per year) and child care centers ($24,243 annually in D.C., $19,632 in Montgomery County and $24,390 in Arlington County). The cost is enough to make some couples rethink having children.
Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Action for Children, says the cost of care has risen sharply in recent years, due in part to the increasingly recognized need for quality early education.
"This is a relatively newer industry — as more women started to enter the workforce over the last 50 years, the work of caring for young children has essentially moved from the unpaid stay-at-home parents to salaried labor," Perry says. "This period of birth to age 3 is really critical for social, emotional and cognitive development. So the need for credentialed, trained and degreed professionals is really critical."
Screenshot/Courtesy of Economic Policy Institute
The cost of childcare in the District exceeds in-state tuition at a four-year public college.
Screenshot/Courtesy of Economic Policy Institute
Other reasons for high costs include the materials and facilities needed to care for kids, and even parking.
In a recent Atlantic article, staff writer Derek Thompson points to three reasons for the high cost of child care in the United States: salaries, regulation and rent. Spending on child care, he says, increased more than 40% between 1990 and 2011, while middle-class wages remained roughly the same.
To learn more about the cost of daycare in the region, check out this episode of WAMU's podcast, What's With Washington.
"Pick whatever source and statistic you like, because they all point to the same conclusion: Child care in America has become ludicrously expensive," Thompson writes.
And despite the high costs to parents, many workers at D.C. centers are not well-compensated, reflective of a larger trend nationwide.
Leaving Work To Afford Children
For Alex, her husband and their infant twins, none of the available child care options are ideal: The daycare in their neighborhood charges $1998 a month per child. An au pair would cost more than $2,000 per month and necessitate overhauling the first floor of their home and adjusting to an additional resident.
And while they could place their twins in a center at a nearby military base where rates are closer to $700 per month per child, that would require Alex's husband to stay in the military for longer than he had intended — plus it would expose the twins to other children during RSV season, which Alex says could be life-threatening to her prematurely born infants.
For now, Alex plans to pay for a nanny share two days a week and have her mom — who lives nearby and works full-time — watch the children three days a week. Alex has to return to work for a short period or be required to pay back some of the medical and leave-related expenses her employer has paid, she says. But after that, she may decide to leave.
"I'm going to have to see what happens when I'm back at work," Alex says. "If it's not manageable, and [if] now we're looking at this and it's just not looking like it's fiscally sound any longer, then I'm going to have to re-evaluate my career. My husband's going to have to re-evaluate his career."
The Toll Of Taking Time Away
In any family where the cost of child care equals or exceeds one earner's net wages, parents need to crunch the numbers to determine the viability of both partners working.
Mary Ann Bronson, an assistant professor in economics at Georgetown University, describes the conversation this way: "'If I have a primary earner that brings home a certain income, and I'm a secondary earner, and now we have to pay for child care if I'm going to work as well, does it make sense financially for our household to do that?'"
"That calculus is actually even worse when you look at very low-income households," Bronson adds.
And it's not just an immediate change in income that parents experience. For heterosexual couples, mothers tend to take a career hit when care is hard to find. A study on child care and the workforce found that 95% of fathers in couples who could not find care continued to work, compared to 77% of mothers.
The disparities between mothers and fathers continue when both are working. In a Pew Research study, half of working mothers said being a working parent is an obstacle to their career advancement, while only 39% of working fathers said the same. A 2018 study found that women who take longer maternity leaves can sometimes be seen as less dedicated to their work, eroding "perceptions of women's agency, job commitment and perceived suitability for leadership roles."
Bronson says taking one or two years out of the workforce can mean a 10 to 20% wage cut when parents return, and a lengthier break (as some decide to stay at home with their children until one or all are in grade school) may further lower wages. Parents taking extended leaves may also not be up-to-date on their field or eligible for the promotions they might otherwise have received in that time, Bronson says.
So while staying at work could mean taking a short-term financial loss on child care, Bronson says it could also be a wise investment in a parent's long-term career.
"If you're in a career where promotion rates are high [and] wage trajectories are steep, staying in is going to have a long-term payoff," Bronson says.
Dustin Fisher, a stay-at-home dad in New Carrollton, decided to leave his job in collegiate recreation seven years ago, after the birth of his daughter. He says the decision made financial sense, given his wife's career. He also didn't want to leave his then-infant daughter with a stranger.
Dustin Fisher has been a stay-at-home father for seven years. With his children now in elementary school, he is deciding on his next steps.
"Why bother leaving her so I could go to a different job? To me, that says I don't want to be there with my kids," Fisher says.
While navigating parenthood with one and then two children at home, Fisher started a blog (Daddy Needs a Nap, now Quote of the Dad) and wrote a memoir-ish book called Daddy Issues. But with both of his children, ages 5 and 7, now in elementary school, he's contemplating his next move.
"I've been out of the workforce so long, there's just such a huge hole in my resume that I haven't really tested with employers," Fisher says. "I'm just dabbling in things that I know that I would like to do."
Finding Affordable Solutions
D.C., Maryland and Virginia all offer child care subsidies to families with qualifying incomes. Some counties offer additional programs, including Montgomery County, where the Working Parents Assistance Program provides supplementary subsidies to eligible residents. Arlington County, which established a child care task force in 2017, is also working with the Arlington Community Foundation to provide scholarships to low-income families.
In 2018, the District passed the Birth to 3 For All DC act, whose components include raising teacher pay, providing pediatric support and broadening eligibility for child care subsidies.
Perry, whose organization has pushed for funding for the Birth to 3 act, says local parents are thankful to have a solution for the "really complex challenge" of child care in the District. "Parents want relief as soon as possible," she says.
Since 2009, D.C. has also offered free preschool to 3 and 4-year-olds, which had a positive impact on mothers in the local workforce. In the first decade of the program, the number of mothers in the workforce increased by 12%, "with 10 percentage points attributable to preschool expansion."
The financial burdens of child care are on the national stage this year as Democratic presidential candidates debate which proposals, including universal child care and tax credits for child care, are most viable.
But for the time being, families who are struggling to afford it are left with only the available options, many of which are not affordable. It can be a shock to couples that have been careful with their money up until parenthood. Both Alex and her husband made sure their bachelor's and master's degrees were paid for and that they were debt-free before starting a family.
"Up until this point, we'd been doing the standard American Dream-type thing where you go to school, you get a good job, you buy a house and then you have kids," she says.