By Sam Roberts
Child care costs have nearly doubled since the mid-1980s, but the portion of families paying for care has dropped, according to a new Census Bureau report.
The report suggested that more families appear to be availing themselves of alternatives, including care provided by relatives and after-school programs. It also found that the proportion of elementary school-age children living with a single working parent and regularly caring for themselves declined to 14 percent in 2011 from 24 percent in 1997.
“More children are in after-school programs as funding for them has increased,” said Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer with the bureau and the author of the report. “Additionally, parents’ work schedules may now be more closely mirroring school schedules.”
The report, “Who’s Minding the Kids,” found that families with an employed mother and children under 15 paid $143 weekly on average for child care in 2011, compared with $84 (in 2011 dollars) in 1985. But the proportion of families that reported using paid child care at all dipped to 32 percent from 42 percent. And the share of monthly family income over all spent on child care has remained constant since 1997, at about 7 percent.
Despite the increased cost of paid child care for families who use it, the report found that the median wages of full-time child care workers remained flat. The median was $19,098 in 2011 compared with $19,680 (in constant dollars) in 1985.
While the report explained that the figure might be understated, only 6 percent of parents who paid for child care said they received help from the government, the other parent, their employer or some other source. Families below the poverty line spent 30 percent of their monthly income on child care, compared with 8 percent among other families.
“What really struck me is the fact that more families who are in deep poverty are paying 30 percent of their income for child care and more families who are below poverty are relying on government support to make ends meet for child care, and those subsidies are being cut dramatically,” said Melanie Hartzog, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund in New York.
“If families don’t have stable child care they’re not able to work,” she continued, “and while there’s an uptick in relative care — and families are paying to some degree for relatives to watch their children — relative or informal care is not always a stable source of care.”
Five percent of children ages 5 to 11 and 27 percent ages 12 to 14 regularly cared for themselves, the census survey found. Among children ages 5 to 14, 23 percent spent more than 10 hours a week unsupervised.
Sixty-one percent of preschoolers were in a regular child care arrangement. Those whose mothers were employed spent about 36 hours a week in child care. Grandparents cared for 24 percent, fathers for 18 percent (typically while the mother worked) and another 10 percent were cared for by a sibling or other relative. Among children living only with their father, 30 percent were regularly cared for by their mother. About 3.5 percent of women who worked cared for their children themselves.
The report found that 13 percent of the children were in a day care center, 6 percent in nursery or preschool, a slightly smaller share in Head Start or kindergarten programs and about 11 percent were cared for by other nonrelatives.