Tackling the High Costs of Child Care

By Erin Delmore

“It’s one of the most significant expenses a family with young children will have,” said Diane Dellanno, policy analyst for Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Child care costs are eating up an ever-greater portion of a family’s budget. Parents say affordable options are few and far between.

“The cost of care can vary anywhere in our state. The latest statistics are around $11,000 for infant care all the way up $15,000 to $16,000 per year in costs. And when you have two children, the costs are even almost double that,” Dellanno said.

To be considered affordable, child care must account for less than 10 percent of a family’s budget, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In New Jersey, the average is a whopping 24 percent — almost twice that in low-income households, nearly three times as much in single mom households and close to 90 percent of the budget for a family in poverty.

“The child care tends to be priced at what the market can bear. So in our counties like Morris County, Somerset County, some of the more higher-income counties, centers can afford [to] charge higher rates because families in those areas can afford higher rates,” Dellanno said.

In Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, center-based care for a child under 18 months is around $10,000 a year, according to a 2013 report by Child Care Aware of New Jersey. In-state tuition at neighboring Stockton University? Around $13,000.

“What people really fail to realize is college tends to have some subsidies that go along with it, meaning that you can get grants and you can get assistance in helping to pay for college. For a lot of families in New Jersey, the majority of families in New Jersey, they don’t get that same kind of assistance so they’re struggling to pay this themselves,” Dellanno said.

New mom Katy Rafferty sussed out child care for her son Conor and found monthly fees near home in Jersey City cost as much as rent — or more.

“My husband is a professor at Saint Peter’s University. I’m an architect in the city. And you’d think two professionals would be able to live well and have a good time and we’re starting to have to really cut back and make sacrifices just to get him somewhere that we can afford because neither of us can afford to stop working,” she said.

Thanks to a flexible work schedule, Rafferty’s family settled on just two to three days of care per week. It’s still a $2,000 monthly bill, cutting into savings for a home and kid number two.

“You don’t get a bargain for having two children in child care. You pay the full amount for both of them. So if you have a child who’s an infant and a 3-year-old, the costs can be astronomical for families. And I think some families then might make the decision, is it worth working, can they afford to work? It comes down to that question,” said Advocates for Children of New Jersey President and Chief Executive Officer Cecilia Zalkind.

“We would have to totally change our situation if we have another one, which we plan to do, but it is what it is. We found a place that we like and we trust and we can afford and we’re going forward with that, but we’re also talking to friends and seeing if nanny share is an option and trying to find alternative ways. I mean, we don’t have family in the area that’s available to watch, so we just do what we can,” Rafferty said.

Child care affordability has become a hot-button issue in presidential politics. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposal includes capping child care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income and launching universal pre-K. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s plan: a $1,200 yearly rebate for low-income families and tax deductions for families making less than $500,000 annually.

While there is some state-based assistance for lower-income families, New Jersey is one of many states that does not offer a tax credit for child care. And so, parents say they’re looking to federal policy as their last, best hope.