In Texas, Child Care Costs More than College Tuition

When our older son began kindergarten last fall, my wife and I rejoiced. Some of our joy naturally sprung from watching him pass such a key childhood milestone — OMG, the little guy's starting school! — but most of it admittedly came from the game-changing impact it had on our budget. Sending him and his younger brother to their downtown preschool had been costing us more every month than our rent and car payment combined. With just his brother's tuition to cover, we were paying barely what our old two-bedroom apartment in East Dallas had cost.

The cost of child care is one of those things that tends to blindside working parents. The little bundle of joy arrives, then BAM, they're paying what feels like tuition at a four-year college just to have the privilege of going back to work. The reason it feels like paying college tuition is because that's how much child care costs in Texas.

On Tuesday, the Economic Policy Institute issued a report — "High Quality Child Care Is Out of Reach for Working Families" — that examines the sky-high cost of child care in the United States. One of the key visual innovations in their report is an interactive chart that displays, state-by-state, the ratio of average infant and child care costs to the full-time, in-state tuition at a four-year public college. In two-thirds of states, including Texas, the costs for infant care exceed college tuition:

Child care gets less expensive as kids get older, so the ratio shrinks when one considers 4-year-olds instead of infants, but parents still have to shell out 90 percent of what they'd be paying to send a college freshman to a state school:

According to EPI, a family of four living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area needs to make $61,500 per year to achieve a modest but comfortable standard of living. Built into the calculation is an estimated $835-per-month in child care costs to cover preschool for a 4-year-old and after-school care for an 8-year-old, an amount second only to housing in terms of its hit on the family budget.

Such middle-income families can afford a college-sized dent in their income, even if it is a struggle. The picture is bleaker for those further down the economic ladder. Families living below the poverty line are eligible for federally funded child care (i.e. Head Start and Early Head Start), though a minority of eligible children are enrolled. According to a 2014 report from Texans Care for Children, just 5 percent of eligible children up to age 2 and 31 percent of eligible 3-year-olds were enrolled in those programs. (Dallas ISD offers pre-K to low-income 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds.)

That also leaves an enormous gap between those below the poverty line ($23,550 per year for a family of four) who are eligible for Head Start and those who are making a comfortable $61,500 salary. Theoretically, nearly all of those families are eligible for child care subsidies through the Texas Workforce Development Board, which has an upper income cutoff of $59,088 per year for a family of four, but in practice the subsidies are of limited utility. According to the Texans Care for Children report, only 52 percent of licensed child care centers accept subsidies, with significantly lower acceptance rates by home-based child care centers, largely because the state offers paltry reimbursement rates, between 17 to 75 percent of market rates. In addition, there's not nearly enough subsidy to go around. In 2013, 16,800 children were on the waiting list to receive subsidies.

It's also worth noting that the definition of "quality" child care can be a slippery one. Texas' licencing requirements are primarily concerned with ensuring kids' physical safety. Educational requirements are vague. (For instance, for pre-K students centers are supposed to provide "opportunities for thinking skills and sensory development," examples of which "include sand/water play, blocks, framed puzzles with up to 30 pieces, a variety of large stringing beads and simple board games.") Any parent who's ever shopped around for a pre-K can attest that this leaves considerable room for quality to vary widely. They can also tell you that finding a child care center that's both convenient and good for something close to the average cost computed by the state ($29.58 per day for preschool, $34.95 per day for an infant) can be a challenge.

The EPI study concludes generally that policymakers should work to increase the affordability of child care as a way to ease financial strain on working families. The Texans Care for Children report is more specific. Its authors recommend that the state do a better job of collecting data on child care availability; increase the amount it pays providers for subsidized child care and work to reduce waiting lists; and tighten standards for providers to better ensure quality.

In the alternative, since any substantive relief will be slow to materialize, working parents can just be glad they don't live in Washington, D.C.