The difficulty of obtaining good, affordable day care is well known as a problem afflicting the working poor. But increasingly, middle- and upper-middle-class parents are finding that day care is hard to find or access and that even when it is available it is startlingly costly. Among the mothers I spoke to, one sent her daughter to a day care proprietor where the owner secretly had another woman mind all eight babies all day long; another signed up for a slot at a local day care when she was newly pregnant. Her daughter is now 5, and she is still on the wait list.
The cost and the scarcity of day care has helped create what the sociologist Joya Misra calls “the motherhood penalty.” While women without children are closer to pay equity with men, women with children are lagging behind because they find that working doesn’t always make sense after considering the cost of child care. When women earn less than their partners, they are more likely to drop out of the work force, and if they do so for two years or more, they may not be able to get back in at anything approaching their prior job or earnings. The cost of taking care of one’s children outside the home is now so high that many women cannot be assured of both working and making a decent income after taxes and child care costs.
Professor Misra, who teaches sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has analyzed data from thousands of parents from different social classes. One study of middle-class academic parents was based on hundreds of surveys and focus group interviews and 17 one-on-one interviews. Many talked about the shock of day care costs, which can eat up 30 percent of one income in a two-salary couple, Professor Misra says.In 35 states and D.C., even the cost of center-based day care (let alone a nanny) is higher than the cost of a year of a public college. More anecdotally, day care costs for middle-class New Yorkers can easily equal from $25,000 to $30,000 per child. In New York, child care is the single greatest expense among low-income families in the city, surpassing both food and housing.
And it’s not just New York City. Ainsley Stapleton, 36, an accountant based in Arlington, Va., describes herself as middle class. But with three children, all of whom are in preschool or day care, she calculates that she spends 87.6 percent of her take-home pay on day care.
“It makes me want to cry a little,” Ms. Stapleton said by phone from her office. In the past, she said, she and her husband have bounced around the question of whether “he should quit or I should, but both of us enjoy working.”