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Having a Child Will Bankrupt You

American childcare is expensive, dangerous, and unreliable. Kids and parents are paying a steep price.

For a while Angela Gonzalez was able to make everything work. Shortly after she graduated college, she landed a dream job—working as a family liaison in a school district—and she qualified for childcare subsidies that meant she only had to pay $15 a month for her young daughter. Then one day she received an unexpected child support payment (about $200), and that increased her income so sharply that her subsidy was rescinded. Nearly overnight, her childcare payment shot up to $800. She took on a second job, bringing her kids with her in the evenings, but it became too much. “This whole life I had built was just falling apart,” she said.

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Gonzalez left both jobs in search of higher pay, but nothing better materialized. She turned to neighbors to watch her children, but that proved to be dangerous: one person so neglected them that her daughter almost got run over by a car.

It was in the middle of this difficult period that she got involved with a man who promised to help her but who turned out to be abusive. “My abuser was like, ‘Oh you work so hard, and you’re struggling, and I just want to help,'” she said. “[I was] feeling so vulnerable and so exhausted and so overworked.” Eventually, she was offered what seemed like a way out—a salaried sales position in marketing that would have allowed her to support herself.

But every daycare center she contacted to care for her two-year-old son, the youngest of her two children at the time, was completely full. “I don’t have family or friends or people to kind of fill that gap,” she said. So she stayed with her boyfriend, and the more he helped, the harder it became to escape. “When I would try to leave him, I’d be homeless,” she said.

She was connected with the YWCA and moved into a homeless shelter for domestic violence victims. It was there that she hatched her current plan to get a law degree. “If I become a lawyer, then I’ll have enough money to really pay for my childcare and I won’t be vulnerable,” she said.

Gonzalez was accepted into law school while living in a homeless shelter. But in order to qualify for a government subsidy for childcare, she has to work while she’s in school—a job with flexible hours that pays at least $500 a month. While her kids are being taken care of, she goes to class; she works at night. “I sleep three hours a night,” she said.

Among all her struggles—hunger, homelessness, violence—it is childcare that has presented Gonzalez with the greatest challenge. If she lacks food, she can go to a food bank, she reasons. If she can’t afford housing, she can stay on someone’s couch or live in a car. “But if you don’t have childcare, you can’t work.” So little help was available to her. “There’s no solution,” she said. “It’s just kind of become this accepted thing … I’m always trying to make money to pay for childcare.”

“I’m almost forced to be a stay-at-home mom”

What Gonzalez endured just to find a safe, affordable, and reliable place to leave her children is extreme. But most American parents will recognize at least part of her story.

In a recent poll, the most common challenge parents said they face when trying to get childcare is the price. The average price of daycare for an infant reaches as much as $17,000 a year and nearly $13,000 for a four-year-old. Putting two kids in a center costs families more than what they typically spend on food and, in much of the country, on housing. In 28 states and Washington, D.C., sending an infant to daycare costs more than sending an 18-year-old to public college. The price tag has been climbing at an extraordinary rate: the cost for families with a working mother rose 70 percent between 1985 and 2012.

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