Childcare Expenses Don’t Stop at Age 5

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama deemed childcare a “must have” in an economy where, for millions of families, two working parents is a necessity. I would add that this is even more true for millions of single and solo parents, struggling to make ends meet.

My children may be raised, but this topic plagued me when my kids were very young (before divorce), and continued to pose serious problems (after divorce) when they were in elementary school and middle school.

Finding quality, affordable childcare options is a need that doesn’t stop at age five!

Childcare Options: Other Parents?

In fact, for a number of years, I was the childcare option for other working mothers I knew, though not intentionally and not without a bit of interruption to my own workday from my home office.

For a number of years, given that I was an “older mother” with extensive work experience, I was a corporate manager holding one of those rare jobs in which most of my time was spent working from home. This enabled me to take my children to school at 7:45 a.m., be back at my desk by 8:15, then pick them up at 3:00 p.m., and settle back into my routine by 3:30. I would work until six or so, make dinner, deal with the kids, and generally put in a few more hours at night.

Why did I end up with more children than my own?

Unless you could afford a private sitter (anywhere from $300 to $400/week, even 10+ years ago), options for K-6 grade were few and far between. Consequently, kids without older siblings, kids who missed a bus, kids for whom a child-sharing arrangement fell through — often in the guise of a play date — might wind up at my home.

And I was happy to help because I was able to help. We should all help each other when it comes to caring for our children! But with so many of us working, this is increasingly difficult.

After-School Needs to Accommodate Real World Schedules

I won’t even go into the complications of summer when you’re working full-time and have roughly three months to cover when school isn’t in session. Those childcare costs? They skyrocket – no longer are you paying for three or four hours each day; now you’re looking at eight, ten, or eleven.

As for my friendly ad hoc “contingency” services, after divorce, my situation changed. Downsizing was an absolute necessity financially, and I relocated to a cozy little house in a different neighborhood. Gone was the home-office employment I had managed for years, and I found myself looking for jobs or performing various tasks on a project basis – or both. I was then shuttling between an elementary school for one child and middle school for the other — neither of my sons was old enough (or physically big enough) to get home alone or be home alone.

During one period of time, as a result of no childcare options, I was bringing both of my children to an office where they had to sit quietly and read or do homework, frequently until eight or nine at night.

That situation didn’t last long; for a number of reasons it became untenable.

President Obama on Childcare

The bottom line: We certainly need better childcare options for our infants, toddlers and pre-K; these are critical years in early childhood education. But the need doesn’t stop when they hit kindergarten. In my opinion, we need quality, affordable programs for children at least through age 10.

President Obama, are you listening?

Incidentally, Slate does a nice job covering President Obama’s childcare statements, citing the President:

“It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

As Jessica Grose notes in the Slate article:

This is an extremely important rhetorical shift—the move from child care as a mushy, emotional, frivolous extra, to a serious imperative.

And it’s a real leap from Obama’s 2013 and 2014 addresses, where he mentioned the need for universal pre-K, but barely discussed child care.

Hear, hear to Ms. Grosse’s words!

Cost Comparisons

As for those who don’t understand the difference this makes, not only in the lives of our children, but in contributions to the economy and opportunities for women, we have only to look at OECD data, which has long provided comparisons to other industrialized countries.

Consider this article in The Guardian UK, comparing Britain’s childcare system to that of Denmark:

… most women with children work in Denmark. As a result, the country is ranked fifth for female employment among the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

From the same article:

… Parents in Britain spend on average one third of their net household income on childcare, compared with an average of 13% in other major economies, according to OECD figures.

As for the US?

Sit down and buckle yourself in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Childcare Costs in the US

This article on rising childcare costs in the US may help explain:

While the average annual cost of full-time center care ranges state by state, it is now as much as $16,430 in Massachusetts for an infant and $12,355 in New York for a four-year-old. For both children, it can be as much as $28,606.

This cost eats up a huge amount of families’ budgets. Putting two children in full-time center care represents the biggest single expense for a household in the Northeast, Midwest, and South…

And remember what it costs to raise a child these days? Well over $240,000. Even the USDA cost calculator yields $12,000 to $15,000/year – per child. Do the math. With a median household income of roughly $52,000/year, that’s 25% for a two-adult, one-child household!

Two children? You’re talking 50% or close. No wonder it’s a trade-off between working and caring for one’s children.

Now consider this. With the median household income of a single mother at roughly $26,000/year – yes, you heard that right – the cost of care for one child would account for 50% of the household income. And if she has two?

These figures, as I said, pulled from government data and calculators referenced in the link above, set childcare costs lower than the article I mention. Do you think 25% of household income is manageable? What about 50%?

At What Age Can a Child Stay Home Alone?

Working parents need peace of mind when it comes to the health and safety of their children. Do we really think that a 7-year-old should be home alone, or an 8-year-old home alone and also caring for a younger sibling?

As for the legally home alone, that varies — again, by state.

To me, as a parent, the criteria are fairly simple.

  • Is the child intellectually and developmentally able to think on his or her feet? Handle himself or herself in case of emergency?
  • Is the child physically able to manage after-school food and self-care, as well as handle a minor emergency? This means no impairments that would be problematic, sufficiently tall to see out windows or on top of counters, sufficiently strong to open windows, move a step-stool, get out through a door.
  • Do you think an 8-year-old can handle this? A 10-year-old? And what about making his or her way home from school if a bus is missed or there is no bus? What about when it’s winter, and it gets dark early?

Clearly, the ability for a child to get home alone when a parent is working and stay home alone – safely – will vary. My elder at 9 was remarkably responsible and resourceful beyond his years. Still, I did not leave him home alone at that age.

When my younger son was 9, he was the height and weight of a 6-year-old. Moreover, his head was in the clouds.

Stay home alone? No way.