Weighing the true cost of childcare

J.J. Keith reads to her son. Sending her two children to daycare would cost $20,000 a year, she says.

Putting a child into full-time day care can cost up to $15,000 in some parts of the country. That’s according to an annual study from Child Care Aware of America. The study found that it costs more to put a 4-year-old in full-time care than it does to pay public college tuition and fees in 19 different states.

For many parents, those prices don’t justify them staying at work.

Take JJ Keith, who lives with her husband and two toddlers in Los Angeles. The family couldn’t afford the nearly $20,000 a year to put both kids in daycare.

So she’s at home.

A normal day, says Keith, “is two kids who won’t nap, both want something…it’s hard to get anything done.” By “anything,” Keith means her work as a freelance writer.

Her work, which ranges from humor essays to writing for corporate publications,  doesn’t bring in much money. But it’s valuable in another way. She thinks it will help her professionally once her kids are ready for school.

“So when I do re-enter full-time work, I don’t have the stink of someone who has been home with the kids for many years and is out of touch with reality,” says Keith.

Financially, that’s smart, says Tony Carnevale with the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. He says “being a stay-at-home parent is a very expensive proposition. Not because of what the cost might be directly. The real cost is the earnings power you lose.”

And that can be steep. Carnevale says people with college degrees who drop out of the labor market for five years could forgo as much as $1 million over a lifetime of work, depending on the profession.  

Carnevale says when that employee tries to re-enter the job market, “It’s as if you are somebody with a two-year community college degree.”

The increasing cost of daycare also ratchets up pressure on single parents. Many of them have no choice but to work, so they need to find a way to lower their childcare expenses however they can.

And that, says Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center, often means single mothers are left to depend on unreliable care. “When childcare falls through, and a parent can’t go to work,” she says. “We know that many parents don’t have sick leave and their job simply falls apart.”

JJ Keith, the freelance writer, has cobbled together a fairly dependable plan that lets her get some work done. For $90 a month, Keith drops her kids off at the local YMCA daycare center, while she works on her laptop in a nearly room.  

But she says, without more childcare she’s just treading water. “I am not saving for retirement, I am not investing in the future,” says Keith. “We are not moving anywhere financially. We are just getting by month to month.”

Keith says she never expected a life of luxury. But she also didn't think the high price of child care would force her to choose between her kids and a full-time job.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.
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I'd like to hear Tony Carnevale explain how a company justifies paying a woman with an undergraduate and/or graduate degree and with years of work experience the wages of a person with a two-year college degree. As a stay-at-home mom with an MBA, my mind has not been erased of all the information and training I received while working. Instead, my skills have been enhanced, and I am better able to focus on "the big picture" because the little annoyances of life rarely frustrate me as they did prior to becoming a parent.

Why is it that women who are paid to care for other children are valued more because they earn a paycheck, yet the women who care for their own kids, doing the same job but with 24/7 hours, are nearly worthless? There seems to be no justification for such practices except prejudice against stay-at-home mothers.

I look forward to returning to work over the next year or two. I managed to perform some volunteer work which helped me receive certification in a new field. If other businesses fail to see my value, then I will steer my career as an entrepreneur, as so many moms have succeeded in doing in the past.

It seems obvious from the comments that there is a "stink" associated with being a stay-at-home mother. Enough so that it detracts from the entire point on this article. On one side you have people up in arms about the very thought that someone may not fully appreciate their role as a mother, and then there's this whole other side that's trying to say that kids are a choice and having a kid if you aren't rich is a bad choice. So, only rich people should have kids? Should only rich people go to college since they are the only ones that can afford it without grants or loans? Maybe, maybe only rich people should vote, too.

Not everyone gets to have a perfect life, with perfectly planned children, and we no longer live in a world where it is perfectly viable for every mother to stay at home, raise kids, iron shirts, and pickle vegetables from their Victory Garden. It's a whole different country out there. A country where rent can be 50% of a person's income, and where, like the article suggests, daycare and preschool can cost more than some colleges. So what do you do? Like JJ Keith, you try and keep up your skills for that day when the kids go off to school, you carve out time to try and bring in extra income, you juggle having a fulfilling career and being a nurturing stay-at-home mom, and you try to not let derision that some people direct towards mothers keep you down.

I appreciate the thoughtful comments of many here. This was a disappointing and misleading report. Unfortunately, public discussion of issues related to caring for children is distorted--federal, state and local governments focus on one "choice" for families: parents in the paid workforce, children in child care. Advocates for "working families" are funded by special interests, including child care corporations. Parents who make other choices, including the choice to have one parent at home, are ignored. The grassroots nonprofit organization Family and Home Network calls for inclusive family policies that support and respect parents regardless of how they meet their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities. http://www.familyandhome.org

In years past, the wife tended to stay at home with the kids. She would seek out careers that allowed her to go in and out of with out much harm - teaching, nursing, sectary, etc. They also supported the family with their garden (food production), canning, mending/cloth making, and limited home maintenance.

Women in the pass did work to support the family, the gain from their efforts were not seen in direct dollars, but in savings from other spending they did not have to make. Back in the day, you could drop out of nursing, teaching, etc for five years and not have to do much to get back into the job. Now days these are skilled jobs with continuing education requirements and update training needed to be employable.

Taking five years off does make you less employable, but not a "stink".

@Clary and Kubajean,

It's fine to procreate, it's a must for the species. Choice come with trade offs, and one must live that choice. Just complaining that a life choice is hard or difficult is a laughable in this situation, since it's quite a conscious choice to have children.

If you must complain about the situation, at least break the issue down properly. Debora Spar who has been on NPR multiple times put it clearly. We can't have it all, there are trade offs, it's a cultural issue as to the available support for raising children, and learning to break the must have consumer mentality.

I am a lawyer who worked straight through when my children were small only to have to stop working when they reached middle elementary school years because the pressure was killing us. Last evening, as I was making dinner for my rather ungrateful children, the following words erupted from my radio: "the stink of someone who has been home with the kids for many years and is out of touch with reality."

My arm froze in mid-stir, and I became angry then sad then pensive and finally I am leaving a comment.

Obviously the word "stink" was a poor choice, especially unforgivable in someone whose chosen profession is skilful word craft.

Second, reality is quite relative. Even when I was working, my two-babysitter upper income NYC reality was quite different than the reality that others face. The simple fact that I had a choice to quit working and look after my children full-time attests to my different reality.

OH my gosh!!!! I just about ran off the road when I heard such an ignorant comment from Mrs Keith. I am glad that we chose to have children and have tried with every situation in our lives to be able to have mom stay at home. She doesn't just manage our home, but also provides a mental and emotional stability to our children. She is their mom, counselor, nurse, support and friend. Has it always been possible or easy to do this? No, but it has made a difference in our children's lives when she could. Maybe I'm a little off topic, but let me declare that my wife is not only a mom, and now that my kids are older, has re-entered the workforce and is a more than capable asst bank branch manager. By the way, she smells like a garden of flowers.

In spite of all the adverse comments Krakah has received for their post, they are entirely correct. And 'THANK YOU!' for finally saying something that my husband and I have been saying for years.
We don't have any children. It was a choice.

A few other musings:
1. The 'stink of motherhood'. I think it speaks for itself.

From the comments section:
2. 'Only rich people should be allowed to have children'.
Maybe so. If the middle class is in irreversible decline (which it is) then perhaps we should think more about saving all our money for ourselves when we get old since it becoming obvious to all that social security won't be around anyway.

3. 'Our wages have been stagnating for the past 30 years' 'Having a single family income just doesn't hold as well as it did in the past.'
And yet people have somehow manage to live on one income. True, you don't get everything you want, but you can live. Yes, I do know actual real live people currently doing this.

4. paraphrased, 'previously women were locked out from the workplace and they had to stay home with the children'
This is actually a different argument. No one (not the article nor any commenter) has said that women shouldn't work. But if you aren't willing to spend a few years at home bonding with your child, then why did you have it in the first place? You can't give up a few years of your earning power to bond with something that grew inside your body for 9 months, are you kidding me? Do you seriously believe that when you're on your deathbed you will be saying, "boy, I sure wish I'd spent another 5 minutes at work". I don't think so.
If a woman wants to rule the world, more power to her. But if it takes every waking minute of your life to get there, then don't have a child, unless you or your spouse is willing to be at home with it for at least the first 6 years of life. No, live-in nannies DON'T count.

5. 'an unforseeable divorce' 'broke my family apart'
Yes, unplanned things, like divorce, will happen. In that circumstance, of course you would choose day care. I know a lot of mothers who had to (in their words) "put the child down and get on with it" (day to day living.) No one said that day care is unnecessary and evil.

I still maintain that children are expensive. They are single most important contribution that you can make to society. However, they are VERY expensive. They are MONEY and TIME expensive.
They should be planned for as logically and carefully as your retirement. Unfortunately, children are borne out of emotion and not logic.
If you can't afford it, then don't do it.

To quote Krakah: "I can't empathize with this at all. It's a choice to have children, there's also a known expense that comes with having children."
Back to original story: JJ Keith lives with her husband and 2 children in Los Angeles, works at home, and is upset because she can't get her child to play with the ipad.
Reading between the lines it's obvious that they are not poor and this is nothing but one big whine fest.
Krakah again: "The last line sums up this whine fest pretty good, "she didn't think.""


I would like to echo the disappointment of your other listener about the aired quote from J.J. Keith. It reflects and perpetuates a public attitude that is part of the problem of why women re-entering the workforce after taking time to raise a child are facing financial disadvantages. It is beyond my understanding why such a challenging, responsible and noble activity as bringing up a child could be considered by anybody a “stink” in a resume and something that keeps you “out of touch with reality”. I don’t think that any woman who has taken the time to raise a child should have to find an excuse or apologize for it.

I myself chose to stay at home with my child when he was born. Those few years, if anything, brought me back in touch with reality after years of a successful career filled with 10-hour workdays. In my opinion, what is out of touch with reality of life is the workoholic corporate culture. And really, how much could the work environment change in a few years that a well-qualified woman could not tackle in a few months on the job? It is obviously in the interest of the employers to perpetuate this condescending perception so that they have the stronger negotiating position.

The problem, as I see it, is even broader than the immediate financial implications for women returning to work. Such condescending view of child caring reveals a hypocritical attitude of a society that claims to hold family values dear. Among all developed countries, US are the one to offer the least maternity leave and returning job guarantee for mothers. The struggle for women emancipation and work equality (which I strongly support) are pressing us to give up on our children in favor of our careers. There is something fundamentally wrong with this outcome. It seems to me that we are fighting the wrong fight. Maybe we can learn from some Scandinavian countries where not only mothers but also fathers get several months of family leave after a child is born. In this way, both sexes take equal responsibility for bringing up a family and it could not be used as a basis for hidden discrimination.

So let’s face the reality – we should all be in this together both at work and at home, and none of these two should be considered a “stink”.

I would really be happy to hear a stronger conversation in our public and political space about child upbringing in the 21 century.


I really have to voice an objection to something raised yesterday in Dan Gorenstien's article about the rising cost of child care. The audio portion of that article contains a quote from stay at home mom, J.J. Keith, in which she says she struggles to maintain her work skill "so that when I do re-enter full-time work I don't have that stink of someone who has been home with the kids for many years and is out of touch with reality." As a long time market place listener, I am disappointed that you would choose to include such a condescendingly arrogant characterization of stay at home mothers. Civil discourse regarding the cost of child care should not contain statements that stay at home mothers "stink" and are "out of touch with reality." Really? What would your mother think?


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