1 in 3 working families is struggling to find the child care they desperately need

Oct 19, 2021
Originally published on October 21, 2021 5:27 pm

Natalie Saldana would love to put her 1.5-year-old daughter in a quality child care program while she works and goes to school, but the $700 monthly price tag makes it impossible.

"Seven-hundred dollars is almost my rent," Saldana said.

Saldana, 22, is a full-time student, single mom and health insurance agent in South Carolina. She's one of the many parents struggling to find child care, even as many child care centers have reopened. According to a new poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 34% of families with young children are facing serious problems finding child care when adults need to work.

The poll also found that in the last few months, 44% of households with children under age 18 have been facing serious financial problems. That figure jumps to 63% for Black families and 59% for Latino households.

As Congress continues to debate a spending package that would expand child care and provide universal pre-K, parents across the U.S. are struggling to find ways to pay for the child care they desperately need right now.

How a lack of child care is affecting families

Safe child care for young children is inherently expensive. Among other reasons, one caregiver can't safely watch more than three or four infants or toddlers at a time. And the U.S. spends less public money on early childhood education and care than most other wealthy nations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many existing child care centers had to shut down completely or reduce their enrollment numbers for safety reasons. As the economy has opened back up, child care centers, like a lot of businesses, are struggling to find workers. But many cannot provide the same employee incentives, like hiring bonuses, that bigger businesses can.

Joe Lopez, a father of three living in Sacramento, Calif., currently pays $1,000 a month to send his youngest to day care, but that high price tag doesn't guarantee reliability. Coronavirus policies at the day care center mean that sometimes, after Lopez drops his son off in the morning, he has to turn around and pick his son right back up again.

"I wake up, log in to my computer to start work from home and then I randomly get a text from the day care that they're shut down for two or three days," Lopez said.

In NPR's poll, 36% of adults in households with children say they experienced serious problems meeting both their work and family responsibilities in the past few months.

Saldana takes online classes in civil engineering and works from home. She said she'd rather work from an office and take in-person classes, but she needs to stay at home to watch her daughter.

"Hopefully I'll be able to make enough money to pay for child care in the future," Saldana said, as her daughter called for her in the background, "which would be so much better, because it's hard when she wants me to do stuff with her or feed her while I'm working."

While there are subsidized child care options in her area, Saldana is concerned about quality.

"I've seen facilities that teach children how to be self-sufficient, and I thought that was very nice," Saldana said. "But then you look at the day cares for low-income families, and, yeah, there's toys, but there's no interactions with the child to facilitate mental growth."

How the federal government could help

These child care struggles persist despite 73% of poll respondents with children reporting that they have received financial assistance from the government. Sasha Eugene, a mother of three living in Houston, has been heavily relying on the federal government's expanded child tax credit after losing her job this month. But the money isn't enough to cover the cost of a day care center or an after-school program for her children.

"[The child tax credit] either goes to them or my bills so that we can keep a roof over our head," Eugene said. "That check is the only income I get."

As part of his Build Back Better Agenda, President Biden has proposed expanding access to child care and providing universal pre-K. There's no guarantee he'll get those measures through, but Biden has made it clear that he wants expanded child care to remain a part of any bill the Senate passes.

"How can we compete in [the] world if millions of America's parents, especially moms, can't be part of the workforce because they can't afford the cost of child care or elder care?" Biden said at an event on Friday.

Quality early education has lasting benefits, especially for children whose families are struggling economically. But without significant financial support, there isn't a lot of hope that parents or their children will be able to reap these benefits.

"Anything would be better than balancing being a full-time mom, student and working," Saldana said. "Except paying so much for child care that I'm struggling to pay my rent and bills."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit


One in 3 families with young children is facing serious problems finding child care. That is according to a new poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. As Congress debates expanding child care and universal pre-K as part of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda, NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been reaching out to families who are trying to find daycare and figuring out how to afford it. Anya joins us now. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So many parents with young kids are hearing that and saying, yeah, that sure checks out. But let's take a step back and explain why it is so hard to find and afford child care.

KAMENETZ: So safe child care for young children is inherently expensive, right? One person cannot safely watch more than three or four infants or toddlers at a time. Personally, I have trouble with just one, but hey. And the United States ranks near the bottom of all the rich countries in how much we publicly subsidize child care. So in this sector, there's low wages, low availability and high prices, all at the same time.

DETROW: And COVID certainly made this all much worse. What has happened over the past year and a half with child care?

KAMENETZ: So at the very beginning of the pandemic, a lot of existing child care has had to shut down or else reduce their capacity because of COVID safety. And as the economy starts to open back up, you know, there's a labor crunch right now. And a big chain like a Chipotle or Costco - they can afford to raise wages. But the little daycare on the block can't afford to do that, so they're having trouble hiring.

DETROW: Yeah. What does this all mean for parents?

KAMENETZ: Well, one thing that it means is that my colleague Mansee Khurana reached parents who had their kids with them while they were on the phone.

NATALIE SALDANA: I'm working, but you hear her in the background. Or she wants me to do stuff. Or, you know, she needs to be - get fed, or she needs to go to sleep.

KAMENETZ: That's Natalie Saldana (ph) and her 18-month-old daughter. Saldana is 22 years old and lives in North Carolina, and she's one of the respondents to NPR's poll.

SALDANA: Being a single mom and a full-time student, it's not easy to be able to spend $700 on child care a month. month.

KAMENETZ: So she says full-time daycare would cost, like, as much as her rent, basically. And Saldana is going to school online for civil engineering. She also works from home selling insurance. And she does have some help from her family. But she says it's all a lot to juggle.

SALDANA: And I have to really try really hard to do all of that while I'm taking my finals or while I'm going to school.

DETROW: I feel like so many people can relate to that, trying to have that adult phone call with the background noise and commotion and everything like that. But does this poll give us a sense of just how common this is, what the data is behind this?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So in NPR's poll, 34% of families with children too young for school report they have experienced, quote, "serious problems" getting child care in the past few months, when adults needed to work. And across all adults with households with children, 36% said they're having some trouble balancing work and family responsibilities.

DETROW: As President Biden desperately tries to sell this agenda, he has made this argument that this is tied to infrastructure, in a way, that the economy would be held back the more parents are struggling to find child care. How does that check out with the facts?

KAMENETZ: You know, I know you watch these numbers closely, Scott. The latest job numbers in September showed another 300,000 women leaving the workforce altogether. So all the jobs have been gained by men, and that's on top of losses during the first year of the pandemic. And that's the biggest seasonally adjusted drop since September 2020. So it's almost become, like, a seasonal hit, where men are gaining jobs back. And women continue to lose them. And that's really down to, a lot of analysts say, how we allocate caregiving responsibilities in this country. So yeah, I mean, I'm sure there's a lot of families like Saldana's that are going to be watching what happens with the Build Back Better agenda.

DETROW: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thank you so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.