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D.C. Is One Of The Most Expensive Places In The U.S. For Child Care. But Why?

Elected officials usually celebrate being first, but a new first for the District this week probably isn't much to be happy about. In this case, it's child care costs.

According to an updated family budget calculator created by the Economic Policy Institute, the District leads the nation in how much parents pay for child care. For a family of four — two parents and two children — child care costs in the city average $2,597 per month, or $31,158 per year.

When rent, transportation, food, and heath care are added in, D.C. emerges as the single most expensive place in the country to raise a family. And it's significantly more costly than the surrounding suburbs. According to the calculator, child care in the Virginia suburbs will cost a family $1,076 per month, while a family in the Maryland suburbs will shell out $1,157 per month.

It's not just EPI that's come to this conclusion. A 2012 report from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent for Education found that a parent of an infant can expect to pay $1,829 per month — roughly $84 per day — for child care (at a child care center; home-based options are usually cheaper). The report depressingly concluded that "the annual cost of child care is equivalent to tuition for public, four-year universities."

There's a caveat, of course. The EPI calculator compares D.C. to metro areas across the country, which makes the nation's capital — the only city being measured — look more expensive by comparison. But we checked average daycare costs in New York and San Francisco just to be sure, and D.C. comes in above both of those.

For anyone with kids, this may not be much of a shock. For me, child care for my 2-year-old sets me back around $1,800 a month. While that's higher than some other options we weighed, it's not by much. And it's cheaper than what my wife and I would have paid to split a nanny with another couple.

But the question remains: Just what makes child care in D.C. so expensive?

Real estate and standards

A number of child care advocates and experts I spoke with say the answer isn't simple. In fact, it's very complicated. But they do coincide on a number of points. First: It just costs more to operate a child care center in a city than it does in suburban or rural areas.

"When you think of expenses… costs are more expensive. Rent and mortgage are incredibly high. Food is more expensive. Insurance and things associated with being accessible go up in a big city," says Michelle McCready, deputy chief of policy for Child Care Aware of America.

"D.C.'s real estate is a lot more expensive in a lot of places, and so real estate will be a factor," says Marica Cox Mitchell, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

There's also standards, and the fact that in D.C. they're high. "Child care costs are related to standards. Some jurisdictions that have lower standards may have lower costs," explains Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center.

And, says Blank, since wages in D.C. are on average higher than many areas across the country, the prices of child care will reflect what many — but not all — residents are making every year. Additionally, the income disparity in D.C. is high, putting more pressure on low- and middle-income families.

"Child care is cheaper in regions that have lower wages, lower standards and lower facility costs," she notes.

Finally, there's the issue of high-quality child care options. In short, there's not enough of them, says HyeSook Chung, the executive director of D.C. Action for Children.

"There simply aren't enough of the slots available, so it drives a shortage among parents who are seeking a type of quality care," she says.

Staff and subsidies

Beyond paying rent, child care providers have to pay for personnel. And not surprisingly, staffing child care centers in D.C. is expensive.

"To make sure you're implementing high-quality early learning, you'll need to have a well-compensated and effective staff," says Mitchell. And the higher the standards are for child care, the more staff you need — and the more they have to be paid to stay on the job.

But even though staff costs are high, Mitchell says they actually could be much higher. "Quite frankly, if you really add staff compensation in a meaningful way, the price [of child care] will skyrocket even more," she says.

According to Child Care Aware of America, child care workers in D.C. make an average of $26,470. (OSSE puts it slightly higher, at $30,000.) That may be above the national average of $21,710, but it's far below the city's median income of $65,830.

"The cadre of qualified and dedicated early care and education professionals in the District of Columbia continues to receive comparatively low wages and often limited benefits," says a 2012 OSSE report on child care in D.C.

That, says Blank, presents a conundrum for child care costs in D.C.: While everyone wants prices to come down, she says they shouldn't be brought down by paying caregivers even less than what they currently make.

"If you look at what the child care employees earn — and remember, that's the bulk of the cost — you don't want to bring down the costs on the backs of the workers. The challenge is really we don't do enough to help parents with the costs," she says.

That's where subsidies come in. In D.C., the cost of the subsidies for low-income families are split evenly between federal and local funds. (OSSE says it's roughly $40 million from each.) But some advocates say the subsidies — which, as The Washington Post has reported, are not easy to get — need to be increased, since they still don't cover enough of what child care options actually cost.

"The amount the District pays to support child care for infants and toddlers is well below market rate, making it hard for child care providers to provide the best-quality care and limiting access to child care for working parents," said the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in a January report. (President Obama has proposed increasing federal support for child care.)

According to OSSE, while weekly child care costs for an infant average $422 (at child care centers), with the subsidies the costs come in just under $300 for infants and $268 for toddlers. And given the city's poverty rate, that can put a heavy burden on poor families — and even more on single mothers.

"We have a child care crisis. Low-income families don't get enough help, middle-income families struggle with the costs," says Blank.

Child Care Aware of America determined that while a D.C. family may spend 14 percent of their income on child care, a single mother could spend up to 86 percent — far higher than the national average. And like in many states, residents may not even know they have subsidies available to them.

"Of families that are eligible to receive a subsidy, only one in six are receiving it. My assumption is that D.C. faces those challenges too," says McCready.

A bright side — and solutions

For all the concerns about how expensive child care is in D.C., the nation's capital does have one big thing going for it: universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

"D.C. is actually a model city in the nation in terms of its coverage of a full school day of pre-K for all children," says Blank.

That not only helps families cut down on costs earlier than residents of states without universal pre-K, but it also expands the definition of what constitutes public education. (Of course, some advocates note that not all pre-K seats are equally good.) That, says Mitchell, is part of what's needed to help bring down the costs of child care across the board.

"Families can no longer continue to afford carry the burden of paying for child care, as much as the burden of public education isn't solely on the backs of families. We want early childhood to be seen as a meaningful part of the education continuum," she argues.

McCready says the solution is multi-layered, and will involve everyone from local and the federal government to employers.

"There’s not one clear solution or answer, but we think it’s a combination. We’ve seen communities work on increased tax credits," she says, citing one possible solution.

In D.C., changes may be coming. Over the summer, a new coalition was created to push for improvements in the city's child care system. The coalition is surveying parents, and plans on organizing round tables across the city to invite ideas from parents on how to make child care more affordable.

While it doesn't yet have any policy demands for the D.C. Council, coalition spokesman Jeremiah Lowery says that parents who have responded to the surveys are already in agreement on one thing.

"So far feedback from those surveys shows that the overwhelming majority of individuals believe that the the child care system is unaffordable. A lot of folks don't know what their options are in terms of finding high-quality child care. Overall, the overwhelming number of individuals think the child care system is broken," he says.

If the coalition makes a pitch to the Council, they may find some willing partners. Tania Jackson, chief of staff to D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), says that earlier this year her office was considering approaches to bringing down child care costs.

"We've been listening to people talk about universal child care. So it's something we've thought about," she says.

But Jackson says that she was surprised by how complaints about costs cut across demographic groups in the city.

"It's too expensive, finding quality child care near where you work is a problem. It's amazing to me that no matter the socio-economic background, [parents] have the same lament," she says.

The increase in young children in D.C. may help build pressure on city officials to do something. According to data from D.C. Action for Children, the number of kids under the age of 5 increased by 30 percent between 2003 and 2013 — far above the national average of 1.4 percent.

And while the increased number of births have been spread across the city, in 2012 Ward 8 led both in the total number of births and the number of births to single mothers. All in all, the city's poorest wards — 7 and 8 — accounted for close to half of all births to single mothers. Those wards also led in the number of parents receiving subsidies for child care.

But whatever happens, advocates like Chung insist that it's not just about the cost of child care — but also the quality. In short, D.C. needs more high-quality seats for kids, especially in poorer neighborhoods where families have far fewer options and are much more likely to be squeezed by existing prices.

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