April 8, 2014

Rising cost of child care may help explain recent increase in stay-at-home moms

ChildcareCosts_ChartA greater share of mothers are not working outside the home than at any time in the past two decades, according to a new Pew Research Center report. After declining for several decades — bottoming out at 23% around the turn of the century — the share of stay-at-home mothers has risen in fits and starts over the past decade and a half, to 29% in 2012, according to the Pew Research analysis of census data.

While there are many reasons driving this trend, one likely reason is the rising cost of child care. A 2010 Census paper (which focused on married stay-at-home mothers) commented that “[e]specially for mothers who have more than one child under 5, the cost of day care might be higher than she could support unless she has fairly high earnings.”

Mothers who do work are paying more than ever for child care. In inflation-adjusted dollars, average weekly child care expenses for families with working mothers who paid for child care (24% of all such families) rose more than 70% from 1985 ($87) to 2011 ($148), according to research by the Census Bureau. For those families, child-care expenses represent 7.2% of family income, compared to 6.3% in 1986 (the earliest year available).

But child care costs hit families at different income levels very differently, according to the census data. In 2011, for instance, families with employed mothers whose monthly income was $4,500 or more paid an average of $163 a week for child care, representing 6.7% of their family income. Families with monthly incomes of less than $1,500 paid much less –$97 a week on average — but that represented 39.6% of their family income.

Those figures are national averages, of course — the actual cost of child care depends on such factors as the age of the child(ren), the type of facility, and where the family lives. According to the census data, for example, families whose youngest child was younger than 5 paid an average of $179 a week; those whose youngest was between 5 and 14 paid just $93 (reflecting that school-age children need fewer hours of care).

Overall in 2011, more than 2.7 million preschoolers with employed mothers (25.2% of preschoolers in that category) had their primary care arrangement through a day-care center, preschool or other organized facility, according to Census. The most common primary care arrangement was with parents or other relatives (48.6%); 12.9% of preschoolers with employed mothers were cared for primarily by non-relatives, either in their own home or the provider’s; the rest had some other arrangement or were in no regular one.ChildcareCosts_table

ChildcareCosts_MapCosts vary considerably by geography. To get a sense of just how much variance there is, Child Care Aware of America, a national organization of local child care resource and referral agencies, surveyed its members last year on the average prices of care for infants, 4-year-olds and school-age children among child-care facilities and home-based caregivers in their states. New York and Massachusetts were the most expensive states in nearly every category, while the lowest costs typically were found in the South. (Washington, D.C., which topped all the lists, was excluded because it isn’t directly comparable to states.)

Topics: Family Roles, Household and Family Structure, Parenthood, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center.

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2 Comments

  1. Taylor2 months ago

    Childcare for my 2 children would be $325/week (plus food, diapers, wipes, etc), or $1,400/ month. Due to lack of Affirdable childcare I have had to quit working. The real issue here is not only money, but how this type of financial strain impacts the emotional stability of mothers. With our combined income being just over $1,900/month, childcare is simply not an option. Must be nice to have family or friends who are willing to help. I’m glad that there are those out there who have family nearby. Perhaps they have been able to withstand the emotional toll of sleepless nights & days-off-work because if stomach virus… Someone was there to help. America is all profit, but no help. Articles like this should be the first piece in putting together the puzzle of complex social & personal issues- like post-part depression. Just my thoughts.

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  2. Andrea3 months ago

    I am a married working mother of two and have been my entire career. Affordable and dependable childcare have always been an issue for me and my husband. When my children became old enough to attend school I realized that I would be paying almost as much in before and after school as I would be if I paid for private education. Since then they have attended a private school. At the moment it is approximately 9.3% of my income, not our combined income.

    Childcare for parents with long or odd hours is also difficult to find unless its in someone’s home and that isn’t always preferred or even an option. Not being able to find childcare with flexible hours can cause financial and family strain and stress.

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