For New York City parents of infants and toddlers, the annual cost of center-based child care is nearly one-third of the median household income — more than four times the level considered “affordable” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The cost is even further out of reach for single parents, amounting to 54% of median income, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens’ Committee for Children.
Coupled with pandemic-related job losses, the high cost of child care threatens to spur a vicious cycle at the expense of both families and the economy: Parents are unable to go back to work without child care, but can’t afford the care they need. Across the city, about 1 in 8 families said they are not working during the pandemic because they are caring for children, according to a Census Bureau survey, and the figure jumped to 1 in 4 for women ages 25 to 44.
Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children, said the high cost of child care ranks alongside exorbitant housing costs as the main drivers of the city’s affordability crisis.
“If we want to recover and make sure that all kids and families are upwardly mobile, we have to do something about affordable child care and affordable housing,” she said.
The report urges the state to expand its child tax credit to include children younger than 4. The Citizens’ Committee for Children is also calling on the incoming Biden administration to follow through on its pledge to refund half of child care expenses for low- and middle-income families through a tax credit of up to $8,000 for one child or $16,000 for two or more.
The group’s analysis notes that while families with children of all ages struggle to find affordable child care in New York City, the need is most acute for those with infants and toddlers, who are too young for free universal Pre-K and expanded 3-K programs offered by the city Department of Education.
Annual tuition at a child care center comes to an average of $18,746, a figure that, by the federal standard, is unaffordable for 93% of New York City families. While the average annual cost drops by nearly half for home-based care, it remains beyond the budgets of 80% of families.
Parents who can’t afford child care must compete with thousands of others for a spot in a subsidized child care program like Early Head Start or a child care assistance voucher. High demand has created waitlists that span months or years, sometimes until the child has aged into a 3-K program.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to work toward universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide. March hopes that if more programs serving those children are supported through education funding, it will leave more federal child care subsidy dollars to serve families with younger children.
“It would allow us to age down our subsidized child care system and pay greater attention to capacity to serve infants and toddlers,” March said. “It becomes a really different equation on how you pay for that expansion.”
But for now, tighter budgets and fear of infection has led many families to keep their young children home for most of this year. Low enrollment means financial losses for child care providers, which could lead some centers to close and exacerbate the competition for care in the future.
With that in mind, March is urging New York to get its remaining funds from the federal CARES Act into the hands of child care providers as soon as possible. Congress appears to be nearing agreement on another relief bill, which would likely include $10 billion for child care providers and stimulus checks of about $600 per person, but no additional aid for state and local governments.
For the remaining months of the pandemic, March says, the city and state must work to safeguard existing child care slots.
“At a minimum, we have to maintain capacity,” she said. “Our first priority is: do no harm.”