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Child care costs more than college in Washington. Democrats in Congress want to change that.

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 20, 2021

Kaylie Dickerson, a teacher’s assistant at Spokane Child Development Center in the Spokane Valley, reads to Adriana, 2, and Orion, 1, on Friday. The Build Back Better Act in Congress promises to raise child care workers’ pay and cut costs for families.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Kaylie Dickerson, a teacher’s assistant at Spokane Child Development Center in the Spokane Valley, reads to Adriana, 2, and Orion, 1, on Friday. The Build Back Better Act in Congress promises to raise child care workers’ pay and cut costs for families. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Sydney Brown and Orion Donovan-Smith The Spokesman-Review

When Emily Gwinn decided she wanted to get back into the workforce a year after her third child was born, one big question loomed: Who would care for her kids while she was at work?

“You almost have to book the child care, and then find the job, and then ask, can you pay for it when you get the job?” Gwinn, 41, said.

She said several factors complicated the process of finding quality child care, such as distance from work and rising gas prices, but none more than the cost of the care itself.

In Washington, child care for an infant under age 1 costs an average of $14,554 a year while college costs $6,830, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In Idaho, with the nation’s lowest minimum wage, infant care still costs about as much as college tuition, an average of $7,474 a year. Care for a 4-year-old costs a yearly average of $11,051 in Washington and $6,454 in Idaho.

That’s the problem congressional Democrats want to solve as part of a sweeping social spending package expected to cost about $2 trillion.

While the details are likely to change as the party’s moderate and progressive factions negotiate the bill, in its current form, the proposal would spend about $450 billion over a decade to boost the number of child care providers nationwide, raise wages for their workers and cut costs for parents.

It also aims to ensure universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

For Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who authored a bill on which the child care provisions are based, it’s an opportunity to transform child care from the responsibility of individual parents to one shared by taxpayers.

“Child care was a problem for families long before COVID hit,” Murray said in an interview. “People struggled with it individually. They didn’t say much, because they didn’t want their job to be in jeopardy if they couldn’t find child care, so often kids were in unsafe places or parents were just in tears every morning trying to figure out what they were going to do that day.”

The senator, a former preschool teacher, has made affordable child care a priority since she was first elected to the Senate three decades ago. But the pandemic “just ripped this wide open,” she said, as schools and child care centers closed and businesses struggled to retain workers who had nowhere to send their kids.

President Joe Biden made Murray’s proposal part of his campaign platform, much of which his allies in Congress have turned into the Build Back Better Act. Democrats are paring the bill down from its original $3.5 trillion price tag to appease party centrists, and plan to use a process called budget reconciliation to get around a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Under Murray’s plan, families making less than 150% of their state’s median income – for a family of four, that’s about $152,000 in Washington and $112,000 in Idaho – would never spend more than 7% of their income on child care, with federal subsidies paying the rest. Those earning less than 75% of median income – about $76,000 in Washington and $56,000 in Idaho for a family of four – would pay nothing.

Gwinn said child care costs swallow half of her monthly income. Per month, she spends roughly $1,500 for her three children. If the legislation passes, it would knock that number down to about $210 per month.

Costs in general have spiked, with the consumer price index – a common measure of inflation – 5.4% higher than it was a year ago, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report Wednesday. Child care costs are no exception, and Gwinn said there are fewer options now when it comes to choosing a provider.

“Mostly, you’re running into wait lists when you’re looking for places for your kids to be,” Gwinn said.

In Spokane County, the number of providers dropped from 277 to 245 between 2015 and 2020, according to the advocacy group Child Care Aware. The Democrats’ plan also aims to keep more child care centers open, with subsidies helping families pay monthly costs and an expansion of an existing tax credit letting both parents and providers claim $8,000 per child, up to $16,000 each year.

Another provision would raise wages of child care workers, who are some of the lowest-paid workers in the country, to match the earnings of elementary school teachers with similar credentials. The median wage for child care workers in 2019 was $14.57 an hour in Washington, second highest in the nation, but just $10.08 in Idaho, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

McKyndree Rogers, a family support specialist at YWCA Spokane, said even while working full time and living with her partner, she had to get a part-time job to reach a livable income, “because I don’t get paid enough.”

“It’s 2½ incomes in our household and it’s still not really enough to pay rent,” Rogers said.

Rogers said she stays in child care because of her passion for early learning and supporting families, but can understand why many leave the industry.

Her yearly income for the child care job comes out to less than $30,000, she said, which is around the national average for workers in the industry.

Early learning providers on average are 7.7 times more likely to experience poverty than teachers in the K-8 system, according to a 2018 study from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. The disparity is worse for Black and Latinx workers, the study said.

Those low wages have made it hard for child care providers to retain workers. Vicki Greger, owner and director of the Spokane Child Development Center, said although her business is licensed to care for 87 children, their capacity is only about 40 because of the staffing shortage.

Without competitive wages or benefits, applicants at these facilities are rare, Greger said. The pandemic worsened what had already been a recruitment and retention issue in the industry, she said.

There have been five or six times, Greger said, when new hires stay only a day or two before they leave, sometimes for jobs with K-12 employers who have the means to offer vacation time and insurance.

“We have to find a way to incentivize people to want to be part of our work force,” Greger said. “Whether that’s more education, livable wages, it just means valuing the work they do.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Congress has stepped in to help with child care. The World War II-era Lanham Act provided free child care to working women from 1943 and 1946, when the war pulled many American men away from their jobs.

At the peak of the program in 1944, a then-unprecedented 37% of women were employed. Today, about 57% of women are in the workforce, but no such federal program exists.

Only about 40% of the need for child care within the county is being met, according to the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The Spokane Child Development Center turns three or four families away each day, because “there is just no space,” Greger said.

“The wait lists are getting pretty intense,” Rogers said.

Greger said the Washington state Legislature helped the child care system with the passage of the 2021 Fair Start for Kids Act, which expanded subsidies for providers and access to financial assistance for families.

“I’m hoping we can have those kinds of wins at the federal level,” Greger said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the median income for Washington and Oregon.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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