The high cost of child care: Where does the money go?


April 11, 2018

Editor’s note: The Coalition on Human Needs is participating in the Children’s Blog Carnival, hosted and sponsored by the Children’s Leadership Council.  Today’s post is authored by Simon Workman, Associate Director, Early Childhood Policy, Center on American Progress. Previous carnival blogs have focused on  the plight of Puerto Rican children in the wake of Hurricane Maria; “grandfamilies,” grandparents or other relatives raising children; the recent March for Our Lives; the importance of dental health for children; the link between quality child care and brain development in infants; the effect of President Trump’s immigration policy on children; and the importance of afterschool programs.

By Simon Workman
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I knew that we had to start thinking about child care early on. As a researcher and policy analyst working on early childhood issues I was familiar with the stories of long waitlists and the struggle families go through to find child care that meets their needs.

What I wasn’t quite prepared for, was the cost.

The first program my son attended cost nearly $1,800 a month. We had recently bought our first house, and I naively had thought our $1,300 a month mortgage payment would be our biggest monthly expense.  How wrong I was.

After talking to other parents, I quickly learned I was not alone in being surprised by the high cost of child care. And at the same time, we all knew the teachers at our kids’ child care centers were not exactly well paid.

This reality – that child care costs a lot but teachers are underpaid – leaves many parents with two big questions: Why does child care cost so much? And, where does the money go?

Where does my child care dollar go?

At the Center for American Progress, we decided to address these questions head-on. We developed a website ( that estimates the monthly cost of high-quality center-based child care in each state and shows exactly where the monthly tuition goes.

Information from the website, and the accompanying report, show that salaries and benefits are the largest expense for programs, accounting for between 60-80 percent of total program expenses in a child care center.

But, this does not mean that early childhood educators are well paid. The average early childhood educator makes just $10 an hour, leaving teachers struggling to provide for their own families and often relying on public assistance programs. Teachers can often make more money working in much less-stressful jobs, leading to high turnover. Those who do stay in the field are often faced with significant economic anxiety, which in turn can have negative consequences for the children in their care.

The truth is, child care is labor-intensive. Class sizes and ratios need to be low enough to allow teachers to focus on the needs of the individual children in their care. And it takes a well-trained and experienced educator to engage children in the type of serve-and-return interactions that are so key to development at this critical age. The teachers we task with caring for and guiding the development of our children deserve to be well compensated.

Why we need a new public investment

The data in this new interactive report makes it clear that the cost of providing high-quality child care and preschool – including sufficient compensation for the early childhood workforce – is out of reach for most families. In addition, in most states the level of reimbursement provided by public child care assistance programs is inadequate to support a program meeting basic state licensing standards, let alone a high-quality program.

As a result, the current child care industry is built on the backs of the early childhood workforce and only functions because the predominantly female workforce is so poorly compensated.

It’s time we treated early childhood education as the public good that it is. High-quality child care and preschool has significant benefits for children, working families and our nation. But it remains out of reach for far too many because we invest far too little in this critical period of a child’s life.

Only with a significant public investment in early childhood education can we ensure the next generation, my kids and yours, are set up to succeed.


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