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

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mary2 years ago

    The teachers in quality centers are not making more money. Many of us have BS, BA or Masters degrees and work for wages barely out of the poverty level.

  2. Tracy3 years ago

    I stayed at home with my children by choice. When my youngest started school I planned to work. When she started Kindergarten I realized I still needed to be home because the kids couldn’t stay home alone when they were sick and we don’t have family near by. I now run daycare in my home. I am licensed and as such am limited by the state to 6 kids. I need to make it worth my time, expenses of running the daycare, and state fees. I charge $3/hr for the first child and $2/hr for each additional sibling. I have to pay for my income taxes, heat, water, garbage, food, electricity, and supplies out of that money. I have parents that shorten their hours to keep down their costs but I don’t know what parents expect. What is more important than good care for your child?

  3. Rachel3 years ago

    Childcare for my ONE toddler is just under 50% of my salary. If/when my husband and I have another child, it will not be affordable for me to work.

  4. Jane3 years ago

    Informative article. Never knew so many women had to quit their jobs owing to childcare fee issues. I’m in fact looking for a good day care unit for my 1 YO daughter. Lately people suggested Weewatch childcare . Please share your experiences and knowledge about the same. Thanks in advance.

  5. brian3 years ago

    and i paid $50,000 for a university degree that only put me in debt.

  6. Taylor3 years 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.

    1. Ebony3 years ago

      I totally and completely agree with you. I’m currently going through this right now. I would love to start some kind of organized group for mothers who would love to work even part time. Just amongst us mothers and create a safe environment for our children.

      1. Deanne Mattice3 years ago

        That would be called a coop and it’s completely doable. Raising children is the most challenging job of all with the greatest intrinsic rewards. Nothing like watching your children grow. A coop would give you the opportunity to work and raise your children and give your children the benefits if socialization and a home environment. Go for it.

  7. Andrea3 years 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.