Once a month, after the kids are in bed, Margie Yeager and her husband convene at the dining room table. She opens her computer and pulls up the spreadsheet where she tracks the family budget. There is one column that’s caused far more stress this year than any other: child care.
Yeager and her husband have three kids — ages 3, 6 and 7 — and child care has always been expensive. But with schools and many day cares closed during the pandemic, the cost has skyrocketed: from $1,850 per month before the coronavirus hit to $5,300 in December. She used to pay nothing for her two oldest children, both enrolled in public school where she lives in Washington, D.C. Now they’re part of a learning “pod” led by a woman who used to work in their school cafeteria.
They had to dip into their savings to cover the cost — but what else can they do?
“I feel actively stressed when we write the check every month,” said Yeager, who works at an education nonprofit. Like many other parents, she has considered scaling back at her job or taking a year off. “I don't feel like there’s a good alternative.”
Nine months into the pandemic, many kids haven’t returned to the schools or day-care centers they attended before the coronavirus, kept out of classrooms and nursery rooms by prolonged closures or parents who don’t yet feel comfortable sending them back. Parents have been left to devise their own solutions. Some have formed pods or hired nannies, while others have enrolled their kids in private school, more likely to be open for in-person learning. These options are inevitably more expensive than pre-coronavirus child care — which, in the United States, was already astronomical.
While wealthier parents can afford to “get creative,” lower income and many single parents have far fewer options, said Caitlyn Collins, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis who studies women and families. Some are leaning on family members or just doing the best they can on their own. Others have been laid off, or have had to quit their jobs to take care of their kids.
Child-care costs are either increasing or they are “drastically shrinking,” Collins said: There’s not a whole lot of in between.
It hasn’t been easy for Yeager and her husband to assume the extra child-care costs, Yeager says — but they can make it work if they scrimp on everything else, at least for a little while. They resisted the extra costs for months, keeping all three kids at home as they worked remotely. To get work done, Yeager would get up at 5 a.m. Her husband would stay up as late as 2 a.m. It was a “really dark time,” she said, and there were days when “every single person in the family cried.” The extra child-care cost, she says, is necessary for her family’s mental health — especially because no one knows when things will go back to normal.
When D.C. Public Schools announced it would start the school year fully virtual, Yeager said, she knew they had to do something.
“Where are they going to go?” Yeager remembers asking her husband. “And how on earth are we going to afford it?”
The United States has been an outlier on child care long before the coronavirus, Collins said, with price tags far exceeding those in other high-income countries. The average cost of child care for a child under 4 is $9,589 per year, according to New America’s Care Report — more than the average cost of in-state college tuition. It’s much more expensive in big cities: In Washington, D.C., the average cost of care for an infant is more than $24,000.
Rising child care costs are particularly “terrifying” for U.S. families, Collins said, because child care already accounts for an enormous part of their budget, often second only to a family’s rent or mortgage. It’s different in other industrialized countries, she said, where child care is heavily subsidized. In Sweden, for example, child-care costs account for no more than 3 percent of a family’s income, and are capped at $1,800 per child, per year.
The U.S. government has provided little relief for parents struggling to pay for child care during the coronavirus. Families or individuals that qualified for the Cares Act, passed in the spring, were allotted $500 per child.
“That paid for six days of care for my infant,” said Casey Stockstill, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Denver.
Some parents who can afford it have swapped public schools for private schools or day-care centers. When two spots opened at a popular downtown day care over the summer, Stockstill immediately enrolled her two kids, ages 4 and 18 months. Before the pandemic, her oldest had been attending a lower-cost kindergarten attached to a public elementary school. It closed in March, opened for six weeks in the fall, and closed again in November.
The new day care “takes every cent” of the budget, Stockstill says — and still doesn’t provide the stability she needs as a pre-tenure professor under pressure to research and write: Stockstill’s two sons are currently home for 14 days after a kid in her younger son’s class tested positive for the coronavirus. While Stockstill wasn’t required to keep her older son at home, she decided to anyway: If the baby had the virus, she figured his older brother probably did, too.
“We’re white-knuckling it through,” said Stockstill, whose husband also works full time. It’s excruciating to have her sons at home for weeks, she says, while still paying full price for a day care she can barely afford.
Other families have opted to pay for care in smaller groups, decreasing the chance that their children will be exposed to the coronavirus. “Money buys isolation,” Collins said.
These tighter-knit options — nannies, au pairs and small pods — tend to be even more expensive than a full-time child-care center.
Catherine Haga hired a nanny for her three kids — ages 2, 5 and 10 — over the summer in Parkville, Md. It only lasted a month. At $20 an hour, Haga and her husband could only afford to hire the nanny for four hours a day, barely enough time for Haga, a doctoral student, to take an exam. Even when the nanny was around, Haga said, her 2-year-old would often find his way into the room where she was working.
Next, Haga researched the child care provided by her local YMCA, where someone would supervise her kids as they did their online school work every day. She’d heard it was affordable, she said. Then she looked up the cost.
It was $80 per day, per child.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ There was no way we could afford that price with three kids.”
Haga considered every possible option, including dropping out of her PhD program, before she found a solution. In a Facebook group for local moms, someone had posted about a new pop-up school at a karate studio: The owners would supervise a small group of kids while they did their online classes in the morning, then do karate with them in the afternoons.
“We were very skeptical at first,” she said. They decided to give it a shot; the program cost less than $200 per child, per week — more than they would have been paying this fall without the coronavirus, but far less than the other options.
It has worked out so far, Haga said: Her oldest two kids just had their first promotion ceremony, graduating to a white belt with a yellow stripe.
“I feel like I got really lucky,” she said. “I just don’t know what other people are doing.”
Haga and her husband pulled their two youngest kids out of their child-care center in mid-March, when they started to worry about their kids’ exposure. They continued to pay the center — which has stayed open throughout the coronavirus — for a few weeks, then formally withdrew in mid-April. It wasn’t a difficult decision, Haga said: If they weren’t able to re-enroll after the virus died down, they decided, they’d just find another place to send the kids.
Other parents haven’t been able to cut ties so easily. Many have continued to pay for child care they’re not using, reluctant to abandon teachers and centers that have cared for their kids, and worried they might lose their spot.
Jenn Kauffman, who works in political technology in Washington, D.C., has continued to pay for day care — a reduced rate when it was closed from March through June, and now the full $1,950 per month — even though she’s hardly used the center during the coronavirus. Her 2-year-old son went in for four weeks over the fall but stopped attending once case counts started to rise again in November. Kauffman, who is high risk, has been reluctant to expand her family’s bubble.
As soon as the day care closed, Kauffman says, parents started messaging each other on WhatsApp, strategizing on how to help keep the business afloat. If families could afford to continue to pay, they said to each other, they should. Kauffman didn’t hesitate, she said: She feels indebted to the teachers who have taken such good care of her son.
Kauffman is also planning for a time after the coronavirus. If she stops paying, she said, her son will likely lose his spot. Their day care is extremely popular, she said, known for its bilingual Spanish and English program. It’s a “magical place,” she says, “Mary Poppins in day care form.” Her family was on the wait list for a year and a half. She can’t just give that up, she said.
Then again, her son will age out of this kindergarten in the fall. Kids might still be at home through the summer, she said. Sometimes she wonders: “Am I saving this spot for nothing?”
For Yeager, the hardest part is the uncertainty. She and her husband are “totally planners,” she says. As the “family CFO,” she likes to know exactly how much money is coming in and how much will go out, constantly updating her budget projections for next year and the year after that.
That’s not possible during the coronavirus.
Yeager couldn’t predict the additional child-care costs her family had to absorb this year — and she has no way of knowing when they’ll return to their old routines. If they absolutely have to foot this bill through the end of the school year, Yeager says, they can.
“There can’t be a world where [the kids] don’t have an in-person option for next year." Financially, she said, “we can’t go beyond June.”
After that, she says, “I really don’t know.”