RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And when parents look for childcare for their children, the most common challenge they face is cost. A poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that cost pushes parents into hard choices. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Patricia Bauer always considered herself middle class. She works in educational training and her husband's a journalist.
PATRICIA BAUER: We consider ourselves middle class, but struggling to stay middle class.
NEIGHMOND: Her two boys - 1 and 3 - are in daycare. Her youngest is in a home setting and her older in a more structured preschool. Bauer's entire take home pay goes to cover just those costs. And after the family pays for groceries, gas, utilities and other expenses, she says to say their budget is stretched is an understatement.
BAUER: It makes us feel like we're working so hard, but at any minute we could lose everything. You know, if we had some major emergency and we don't have savings.
NEIGHMOND: And planning for the future? Bauer would love to. But right now there's just no way.
BAUER: We don't have big retirement funds and we're not able to invest in that right now.
NEIGHMOND: Nor can they afford to contribute to college funds, a source of concern for both parents. While Bauer loves being mom to two little ones, she says she and her husband are pretty much counting down the days till the boys are in public school.
BAUER: We always joke with each other about as soon as both of our boys are in public school, we'll be rich. Because we're just paying so much in child care that for us, you know, our kids going to public school where we're not paying over $2,000 a month for full-time care, it just seems like a dream.
NEIGHMOND: In our poll, the vast majority of parents say there is a fee for child care. And nearly one-third of them, like Bauer, say the cost creates a financial problem. And for many of them it's a very serious problem. Patricia Bauer considered not paying for daycare and quitting her job to care for her kids, but after crunching numbers decided she just couldn't afford it.
BAUER: Because then I - we would have to pay for health insurance. And that would create another huge bill that we couldn't afford.
NEIGHMOND: Many families can't even consider a high-quality preschool. Rachel Schumacher directs the Office of Childcare for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
RACHEL SCHUMACHER: When you look at what the median income is for families in this country, it's just over $55,000. But the average cost of infant child care annually is over 10,000.
NEIGHMOND: A sizable chunk that rivals and in many states tops the cost of one year's college tuition at a state school. So why does child care cost so much? It's labor intensive. While all states differ, most require a certain number of teachers or caregivers to ensure the health and safety of children. And even then, caregivers' salaries are typically low, often in the poverty range.
SCHUMACHER: We tend to really think of early childhood years as babysitting years and they're not.
NEIGHMOND: Schumacher says brain research has shown just how critical those early years are. Children learn how to express their feelings and communicate with others. And in the best of scenarios, a firm foundation is built which nurtures curiosity and the ability to learn.
SCHUMACHER: There are about 700 to 1,000 new neurological connections that are forming every second in those first three years of life. And that doesn't happen the rest of your life. The architecture that's built in the first few years is really much more rapid and very critical to everything that comes after.
NEIGHMOND: A pretty good reason why the U.S. should invest more focus on money, she says, in early childhood education. So parents can make decisions based on quality and location, not affordability.
SCHUMACHER: And that's really not the equation we want to have when we know how important those years are for our children's future and for families' peace of mind, frankly.
NEIGHMOND: Particularly since today's world is very different than it was a few decades ago. In the past, moms and even grandparents were often able to care for the children. Today, pretty much everyone has to work. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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