America’s child care crisis is holding back moms without college degrees

AUBURN, Wash. — After a series of lower-paying jobs, Nicole Slemp finally got the job she loved. She was a secretary for the Washington Children’s Department, a job that came with her own workplace, and she had a talent for working with families in difficult situations.

Slemp expected to return to work after having her son in August. But then she and her husband started looking for childcare – and started doing math. The best option would cost about $2,000 per month, with a long waiting list, and even the least expensive option would cost about $1,600, which still eats up most of Slemp’s salary. Her husband makes about $35 an hour at a hose distribution company. Together they earned too much to qualify for government assistance.

“I really didn’t want to quit my job,” said Slemp, 33, who lives in a Seattle suburb. But, she says, she felt like she had no choice.

This dilemma often arises in the United States, where high-quality child care programs are unaffordable, government support is limited, and child care spaces can be difficult to find. In 2022, more than 1 in 10 young children had a parent who had to quit, refuse or drastically change jobs the year before due to childcare problems. And that burden falls most heavily on the shoulders of mothers, who are taking on more responsibilities for raising their children and are much more likely to quit their jobs to care for the children.

Yet women’s labor market participation has recovered from the pandemic, reaching an all-time high in December 2023. But that masks an ongoing crisis among women like Slemp, who don’t have a college degree: The gap in labor force participation between mothers who have a four-year college degree and those who don’t has only grown.

For mothers without a university degree, a day without work is often a day without pay. They have paid leave less often. And when faced with a disruption in child care, an adult in the family is much more likely to take unpaid leave or be forced to quit their job altogether, according to an analysis of Census survey data by The Associated Press in association with the Education Reporting Collaborative.

In interviews, mothers from across the country talked about how the seemingly endless search for childcare, and its costs, left them feeling defeated. It pushed them away from their careers, robbed them of a sense of purpose and left them in financial distress.

Women like Slemp challenge the image of the stay-at-home mom as an affluent woman with a high-earning partner, says Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“This country’s stay-at-home moms are disproportionately mothers who have been pushed out of the workforce because they don’t earn enough to financially afford child care,” Calarco said.

Her own research shows that three-quarters of stay-at-home mothers live in households with incomes of less than $50,000, and half have household incomes of less than $25,000.

Yet the high cost of child care has upended the careers of even those with college degrees.

When Jane Roberts gave birth in November, she and her husband, both teachers, quickly realized that sending baby Dennis to daycare was out of the question. It was too expensive and they were concerned about finding a quality supplier in their hometown of Pocatello, Idaho.

The school district does not have paid medical or parental leave, so Roberts used her sick leave and days off to stay home with Dennis. She returned to work in March and husband Mike took a leave of absence. By the end of the school year, they have lost a total of nine weeks of wages. To make ends meet, they borrowed money on Jane’s life insurance policy.

Roberts will no longer be teaching in the fall. The decision was heartbreaking. “I have dedicated my entire adult life to this profession,” she said.

For low- and middle-income women who do find child care, the costs can become overwhelming. The Department of Health and Human Services has defined “affordable” childcare as an arrangement that costs no more than 7% of the household budget. But a Labor Department study found that there were fewer than 50 U.S. counties where a family earning the median household income could get child care at an “affordable” price.

There is also a link between the cost of child care and the number of mothers working: A 10% increase in the average price of child care was associated with a 1% decrease in the maternal labor force, the Labor Department found.

In Birmingham, Alabama, single mother Adriane Burnett earns about $2,800 a month as a customer service representative for a manufacturing company. She spends more than a third of that on caring for her three-year-old.

In October, that child was left out of a program that made the family of three eligible for child care subsidies. So she took on more work delivering food for DoorDash and Uber Eats. To make the deliveries possible, her 14-year-old has to babysit.

Still, Burnett had to file for bankruptcy and forfeit her car because she was behind on payments. She borrows her father’s car to continue her delivery gigs. The financial stress and guilt over missing time with her children have taken a toll on her health, Burnett said. She has had panic attacks and fainted at work.

“My kids need me,” Burnett said, “but I also have to work.”

Even for parents who can afford childcare, finding it – and paying for it – takes a lot of time and energy.

When Daizha Rioland was five months pregnant with her first child, she posted in a Facebook group for Dallas mothers that she was looking for childcare. Several warned that if she was not on a waiting list, she was already falling behind. Rioland, who has a bachelor’s degree and works in communications for a nonprofit, wanted a racially diverse program with a strong curriculum.

While her daughter remained on the waiting list, Rioland’s parents stepped in to care for her. Eventually, her daughter reached the top of a waiting list – when she was 18 months old. The tuition fees were so high that she could only attend part-time. Rioland put her second daughter on waiting lists long before she was born, and she now goes to a center that Rioland trusts.

“I grew up in Dallas. I see what happens when you don’t have the luxury of a high-quality education,” said Rioland, who is black. “That will not be the case for my daughters.”

Slemp sometimes wonders how she stayed home with her son – time she cherishes but also finds disorienting. She thought she was doing well. After working at a water park and a call center, her job with the state seemed like a step toward financial stability. How could it be so difficult to maintain her career when everything seemed to be going well?

“Our country is doing nothing to help fill that gap,” Slemp said. As parents, “we have to keep the population going, and they’re not giving us the opportunity to make sure our kids can do that.”


Carly Flandro of Idaho Education News, Valeria Olivares of The Dallas Morning News and Alaina Bookman of contributed to this report. Balingit reported from Washington, DC, and Lurye from New Orleans.


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