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Child care costs eating close to 40 percent of single-income family budget

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For many single parents, this comes as no surprise: rising costs and stagnating incomes have made child care the biggest expense for a family of three. 

This matters in California where one-third of all children live in single-parent households. About 3 million children are living in families relying on one paycheck

The California Childcare Resource and Referral Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, has crunched survey and census numbers for at least 15 years to produce a county-by-county index of child care costs every two years.  

"So while it has consistently taken up around one-third of a family's budget, we have noticed that it has been increasing over the past few years, to close to 40 percent in 2013," said Rowena Quinto, the group's research director.

The growing bite of child care costs is largely because incomes have remained stagnant while the cost of living has increased, Quinto said. According to Census and Survey data, in the years between 2005 and 2013, wages in L.A. County increased 13 percent while the cost of childcare went up 33 percent. 

Increase in L.A. County median income versus Pre-K child care costs (2005-2013)

Kinta Cox, a single parent of two, knows the burdens that child care costs visits on a family.

Back in 2008, just as the recession was hitting, Cox’s personal life was falling apart. She and her husband were going through a bitter divorce. The Long Beach family lost their home, and Cox's health was bad. She was unable to keep working. Things were bleak.

Her two daughters were attending Little Tykes Day Care in Long Beach, where they had been since 2006 when her youngest was an infant. Cox said her childcare provider, Vernessa Easly, was her only safety net.

She needed one.

Between 2008 and 2011, the single mother and two young daughters couch-surfed their way through homelessness, enduring days when there was little money for food. In 2010, Gov. Schwarzenegger cut Stage 3 CALWORKS — a state child care subsidy program — and Kinta Cox lost her child care subsidy.

“Both of my girls were too young to be staying at home for long periods of time,” Cox said. “I needed child care,” Cox said.

Life got better for Cox when she took a full-time job with decent pay, but child care is still a big chunk of her salary. After paying rent, she's left with only a few hundred dollars to cover groceries, utilities, gas and other expenses. 

Luckily for Cox, Vernessa Easly stepped in to offer the single mom a discounted child care rate so that she could continue to work. Without this help, Cox would have to quit her job to take care of her daughters herself.

“I don't want to be the one without a job,” Cox said. “It’s not a good feeling, especially when you’ve got two people to support.”

The cost of child care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers has been compared in a national study to college costs. In fact, depending on where you live, a child’s early years may be the most costly of their educational lives.

Quinto said child care in Los Angeles county is expensive. Over five years, three years of infant-toddler care and two years of preschool, a family will pay about $57,000. 

“When we’re looking at a [California] family of three making about $42,000 per year, childcare takes up about 37% of their budget.”

In Los Angeles County last year, child care for two children under five ate up 41 percent of a single-income family budget. Housing in the county jumped substantially, too, from 35 percent of the family budget in 2013 to 44 percent this year.

Quinto said this would leave the family with just 15 percent of its budget to pay remaining expenses: food, transportation, utilities, clothing and healthcare — some of the bigger and continuing expenses a family has. 

Cox has not had a raise in years, yet her rent has gone up, gas prices continue to rise and even milk and eggs cost a little more today than one year ago.

How does she do it?

“I am very coupon conscious,” Cox said. And Tuesday is dollar day at Baskin Robbins, so it’s the one day she can treat her girls.  

Disappearing safety net

UCLA Anderson Forecast economist William Yu believes child care subsidies help struggling families and society the most. “This is much more important than any other welfare, [any] other redistribution program,” he said, since child care can take up more of the family budget than even rent or food.

But subsidies are not easy to get. In California, a family of three must have an income of less than $42,216 to qualify for a child care subsidy. Even a few dollars over this limit can disqualify a family.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office compared California to other states and found the state made it harder than most for a family to receive subsidized care. California requires a family to be at 228 percent of the federal poverty line to qualify while most states are at 200 percent or below.

For some, like Kinta Cox, her child care provider has become her safety net.

Vernessa Easly who runs Little Tykes Day Care will often keep Cox’s daughters into the evening if she is running late at work or stuck in traffic. Easly feeds the girls a hot breakfast and dinner, lessening Cox’s food costs.

Yet providers like Easly are not making much more than the low-income families they serve. Easly estimates she and her husband, who runs the childcare business with her, brought in a maximum of $40,000 last year. A 2003 County of Los Angeles Child Care Planning Committee survey of providers found they averaged 62-hour work weeks for a net pay of just over $15,000. 

Easly charges many of her single mothers a lot less than the going rate. “I have a little more than them and so I don’t mind giving that extra hand.” 

Another of Easly’s single moms, Marie Williams, also sees her child care provider as her safety net. Williams has two children and was divorced five years ago. Her family lives in Texas and she has no other support in Long Beach.

Her job, in medical billing at a local mental health treatment agency, is relatively secure. Since starting almost three years ago, Williams has been promoted twice and currently makes $14 an hour.

“It’s a great job,” she said. “Even still, with $14 an hour, it's not enough, not for a single mom.”

Williams receives a partial subsidy to help cover child care because of her low income. Yet she fears advancing her career because she can’t afford to lose her subsidy. 

“As much as I want to be able to get a raise, that’s a little bit scary, because even if I were to make a dollar or two or three more, if I were have to be cut off and paying regular daycare costs that would throw me back into probably not having a job again.”

Listen: A day in the life of a Long Beach child care worker

Single Father income chart


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