aug-sept15artSixty-seven million women in the U.S. are employed today, which represents nearly half of the entire labor force. According to a new policy brief from the Center for American Progress, 40 percent of American households have mothers who are sole or primary breadwinners and another 25 percent are co-breadwinners. Sixty-four percent of women with children under six are working, but when considering the staggering cost of child care, it is difficult to understand how they are coping.

Rising Cost of Child Care: The Status of Women in the States: 2015, released earlier this year by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, indicates that after correcting for inflation, the weekly out-of-pocket expenditures on child care for families with an employed mother almost doubled between 1985 and 2011, by which time 30 percent of the income of families below the poverty level was being spent on child care. In 2014, the cost of center-based infant care averaged over 40 percent of the state median income for single mothers and rivaled other budgetary items such as housing and transportation, according to a 2014 report by Child Care Aware. In every state, the cost of center-based care for two children exceeds the median cost of rent, and in at least 31 states and the District of Columbia, the price tag for a year of child care exceeds the cost of two semester’s tuition at a public university (Child Care Aware).

To cope, many families devise strategies that include multiple care arrangements and reliance on family members to care for young children. This trend was documented by sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer (Grandmothers at Work, Juggling Families and Jobs 2014) who argued that in the wake of changing family structures, reduced support from the state, and increasingly limited access to affordable and flexible child care, today’s grandmothers are doing more care work with their grandchildren than their own mothers had done when they were raising families. It is not surprising, then, that a recent Pew Research survey revealed 72 percent of grandparents report they provide child care occasionally, and 22 percent report they do so regularly.

Government Support for Child Care: Reliable and affordable child care is an important factor in enabling mothers in low-wage jobs to maintain stable employment, and for low-income parents to sustain livable conditions for their children. Additionally, inadequate access to child care hampers economic growth because it prohibits the ability of parents to fully participate in the workforce. However, there is little remedy emerging from the government, and according to the CAP proposal:

“Many of the current work-family policies stem from a time period when families had a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver, typically the mother.”

The cost of full-time annual center-based care for infants varies from state to state. This is partially due to considerable variability in state regulatory policies and partially the result of distribution variability of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The grant provides $5.3 billion to subsidize states’ costs in ensuring high-quality standards for child care and offsetting the cost of child care with vouchers to low-income families, which the states must partially match with their own funds. Each state is required to provide this assistance to families with incomes below 85 percent of state median income, yet they have considerable flexibility in determining extended eligibility. In 2013, the grant was extended to the lowest number of families in 15 years and the average subsidy – at $4,900 annually – covered only half the average cost of quality child care, leaving families with limited options. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, only 17 percent of potentially eligible families (under the federal CCDBG parameters) received any assistance, and the recent Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) report, Policy Solutions that Work for Low-Income People, reveals that in 2013, the total combined federal spending on child care fell to the lowest level since 2002.

The other government sponsored child care relief program is the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC), which provides an income adjustable portion (20-35 percent) of up to $3000 in child care expenses for up to two children ($6000 max). According to recently released data from the Department of Treasury, families with incomes over $100,000 benefit the most from the program, which provides benefits retroactively when families file their taxes in the spring – a delay low income families cannot wait for when managing tight month-to-month expenses. In addition, because the credit is non-refundable, the deduction cannot exceed the amount of taxes owed. This means families with incomes slightly above the poverty level or lower, whose other exemptions may zero out their income tax burden, are left unable to take advantage or the credit.

Proposed New Child Care Tax Deduction: Neither the Child Care and Development Block Grant or the Child or Dependent Care Tax Credit is enough to close the gap on assisting families with the unmanageable cost of child care. Therefore, Carmel Martin, CAP’s Vice-President of Policy, argues:

“It’s time for a pathway that will significantly expand access to high-quality child care for those who need it most. When we talk about an inclusive economy, we need to make sure that all parents—men and women—can participate in the workforce.”

The proposed policy (High-Quality Child Care Tax Credit) would make provisions for families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level and provide up to $14,000 per child under age three. Families would contribute up to 12 percent of their income toward child care fees on a sliding scale. The size of the tax credit reflects the cost of high-quality child care, builds in higher wages for providers, and would be paid directly to high-quality providers selected by parents. Parents with unpredictable work schedules could use providers that met health and safety standards if a high-quality child care provider were not available during a needed time. The proposed policy would make high-quality and affordable child care a reality to millions of American families for the first time and increase economic growth through increased labor force participation. Furthermore, the added benefit of early education available from high-quality child care providers could ensure the long term security of a strong future workforce.

Download the Center for American Progress policy brief here.

Perry Threlfall is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in sociology at George Mason University. She studies gender, race, and structural mobility through the lens of policy and practice, particularly for single mother families. You can read her occasional blog at the Single Mother Sociologist.