We Need Affordable Child Care for Working Families | Commentary

Posted July 9, 2014 at 4:01pm

Our children deserve the best care and education possible, but working parents in Chicago and across the country face a frustrating lack of access to affordable, quality child care. At a time when many families need two incomes just to make ends meet, quality child care is an absolute necessity and one of the biggest financial burdens working families face.

Nearly two-thirds of women with preschool age children work outside the home, yet most households receive no employer assistance when it comes to securing child care. For some families, child care costs have started to exceed expenses for food, rent and even college. A 2013 Child Care Aware of America study found that in more than 30 states, the average cost for an infant in a child care center was more than a year’s tuition at a public four-year university. That is a financial burden that is simply too difficult to bear.

My home state of Illinois is one of the top 10 least affordable states for child care, with an annual average cost of nearly $13,000 for an infant in a child care center. That equals nearly 15 percent of the median income for a married couple and more than 50 percent of the median income for a single mother.

But this problem affects working families across the country, from rural areas and small towns to major urban centers. The average annual cost of full-time infant care in a child care center ranges from $4,863 in Mississippi to $16,430 in Massachusetts. In every state, the average cost amounts to more than 25 percent of the median income for single parents. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, that cost equals more than 10 percent of the median income for a married couple.

These astronomical costs can disrupt the workforce, hurting employers and employees alike. U.S. companies lose as much as $3 billion a year when parents take unplanned leave to care for children. After investing both time and money to develop valuable employees, employers face a “brain drain” of talent, skill and experience as an increasing number of parents, primarily mothers, are forced to leave the workforce entirely to care for young children because the cost of day care is more than what they earn. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, nearly 30 percent of mothers make this “choice,” but is it fair to call it that when fiscal realities offer very few alternatives?

The White House took up this issue last month at the Summit on Working Families, but Congress also has a responsibility to act. To gain a better understanding of the problem, I recently sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office, along with 18 of my colleagues, asking for an assessment of the child care services available to federal employees. As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government should lead the way on working conditions and employee benefits and set a shining example for all public and private employers. The GAO study is a smart first step to help us better address the child care needs of working families across the country.

Ensuring American families can access quality child care is the right thing to do as we strive to build an economy that works for everyone. It will bring stability and peace of mind to working parents, prevent worker absenteeism, retain a skilled and productive workforce that will grow our economy and set up future generations for success through quality early childhood care.

Rep. Mike Quigley is a Democrat from Illinois.