The sky-high cost of child care rivals tuition and rent

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The sky-high cost of child care rivals tuition and rent

Lawmakers must address the child care affordability crisis

By - April 9, 2019

Affordable, high-quality child care is essential to the well-being of Washington’s kids, the economic stability of our families, and the prosperity of our state. Parents need access to child care in order to work, and children need safe, nurturing environments in order to learn and grow. However, the high and rising cost of child care is out of reach for far too many working families and can quickly consume a family budget.

Washington lawmakers should lay the groundwork for addressing the affordability crisis in child care this session by passing House Bill 1344, the Child Care Access Now (CAN) Act. This important legislation would outline a path for establishing affordable, high-quality child care for all Washingtonians by 2025. It would also take vital steps to ensure that child care workers themselves can make ends meet, so that they can better afford to do the critical work of keeping Washington’s kids safe, healthy, and on track for success in school and life.

Washington is consistently ranked among the 10 least affordable states in the nation for both center-based and in-home child care. And we are the sixth least affordable state for center-based infant care in particular.1 In fact, child care claims a staggering portion of the typical family budget. The statewide median cost of center-based child care for a family with two children – an infant and a 4-year-old preschooler – is $1,933 per month.This is more than half of annual household income for a family of three making $42,600 (or at 200% of the federal poverty line) – which is the point at which families make too much money to qualify for state child care subsidies.3 In especially expensive areas of the state like King County, working families can face even higher costs.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

Three donut graphs that show that child care costs consume a significant portion of annual household income - 28 percent of earnings for a family making the statewide median income for families with children, 54 percent for a low-income family making 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and 75 percent for a family making the statewide median income for single-mother households.

To better understand the magnitude of the expense, consider that center-based child care for families with two children (one infant and one preschooler) exceeds the cost of:

  • Tuition at a public four-year college in Washington state. Child care costs more than twice the in-state resident tuition for the University of Washington,4 and more than three times the resident tuition for Eastern Washington University.5
  • Rental housing across the state of Washington – including costly regions like King County. Child care exceeds statewide fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment by more than $500 per month, and by more than $700 per month (nearly 40%) in King County.6 (See chart below.)


Click on graphic to enlarge.Bar chart that shows that the statewide median cost of child care for a family with one infant and one preschooler exceeds the cost of resident tuition at the University of Washington as well as rent in King County and Washington state overall.

Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) is a federal- and state-funded program that provides subsidies to low-income families to help offset the cost of high-quality child care. WCCC is a lifeline for many families across our state struggling to pay for child care. But it is only available to those with incomes below $42,600 for a family of three and who can meet a specified number of work hours each month. Given the incredible strain that child care places on family budgets in our state, families with moderate incomes need child care support too.

Further, child care providers – both businesses and individual teachers and caregivers – are struggling to make ends meet themselves. This poses a problem for families looking for child care even when they qualify for and receive WCCC subsidies, because child care providers cannot afford to operate on what the state pays them. Because WCCC only reimburses providers for 30% of the market cost, many struggle to compensate staff, pay rent, and purchase necessary supplies  at such a low rate. Providers often set a cap on the number of WCCC-subsidized children they’ll take – so that even when a family is equipped with WCCC assistance, there’s no guarantee they will be able to find care.

Now is the time to act boldly on behalf of Washington’s kids, families, and workforce. Early learning is one of the best investments our state can make, and policymakers have the opportunity to take meaningful steps to ensure that every child has a strong start. The Washington CAN Act – which has passed out of the House and awaits a vote out of committee in the Senate – would outline a path to establishing affordable, high-quality child care for all Washingtonians by 2025. The legislation is a first step toward critically needed intervention on the sky-high cost of child care. It is poised to improve the lives of people across our state by:

  • Expanding eligibility for financial assistance and capping child care expenses, so that the amount of income Washington families devote to child care better aligns with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ affordability standard.7 This would rightly extend support to moderate-income families who are struggling to pay for child care but are currently ineligible for help, or who lose the help because they have even a small bump in pay.
  • Investing in quality care by raising reimbursement rates. In order to ensure an adequate supply of child care providers to meet the demand, reimbursement rates must be increased to better reflect the true cost of quality. This would enable providers to stay in business while serving children and families across income groups. It would also promote increased compensation for underpaid child care workers – a majority women, and disproportionately women of color, workforce.
  • Eliminating work requirements from WCCC eligibility, so that parents who are not in the paid workforce also have access to child care. Currently, WCCC assistance is limited to parents who are employed or participating in WorkFirst (our state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program) – leaving out those who are in school, caring for an aging or disabled family member, facing their own health issue, or looking for work. These families also need affordable child care in order to maintain stability and have a chance to get ahead.

Washington lawmakers have an exciting opportunity to lead the nation on behalf of children, families, and early educators. Lawmakers should pass the CAN Act as a first step toward a bold modernization of our state’s child care system – to better promote child and family health and economic stability, strengthen our workforce, and deliver long-term returns that benefit us all.

1. Child Care Aware of America, The U.S. and the High Cost of Child Care (2018).

2. Child Care Aware of Washington (2018).

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019 poverty guidelines. Low-income is defined as 200% of the Federal Poverty Level for a family of three, or $42,600 per year.



6. B&PC calculations using data from Child Care Aware of Washington and the National Low Income Housing Alliance’s Out of Reach 2018 report.

7. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families child care affordability standard is seven percent of family income.