‘Not Broke Enough’ How Surging Child Care Costs Are Hurting Sacramento Families

By Phillip Reese and Sawsan Morrar The Sacramento Bee

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Sacramento Bee takes a look at the increased cost of childcare and how it is pricing out thousands of local families. 

The Sacramento Bee

Single mom Racquel A. Payton earns $50,000 a year as a preschool teacher at Sacramento City Unified, but she still struggles to afford child care for her infant son, especially as her rent approaches $2,000 a month.

In desperation, she recently began driving part time for DoorDash, delivering takeout from local restaurants.

"My lease is going to end at the end of the month and I have to decide if I am going to stay," she said. "I have a master's degree. I can only imagine how hard it is for those who can't make even as much as I am making."

This is the reality of child care costs in Sacramento today: Residents can expect to pay about as much for infant day care as much of the nation spends on rent for an apartment.

The average annual cost of full-time care for an infant at a Sacramento County licensed child care center was about $14,200, or $1,187 per month, in 2018, up about 16 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to a Bee review of survey data from the California Department of Education.

For perspective, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment nationwide is about $1,360 a month, and about $1,475 a month in Sacramento, according to listings firm Abodo.com. Annual in-state tuition and fees at UC Davis, if paid in monthly installments, are about $1,207 a month.

For a Sacramento County household earning the median income for the area -- about $63,000 a year -- that translates to spending about 23 percent of every dollar on child care for each infant.

The rising child care costs in Sacramento illustrate a critical moment for the region as it struggles with how to manage a growing population in the shadow of the higher-income Bay Area, where the average price for full-time infant care is quickly approaching $2,000 a month.

By one measure, child care in Sacramento is now more expensive than in San Francisco. A San Francisco County household earning the median income for the area would pay a slightly lower proportion -- about 21 percent -- of its income for infant care than the typical Sacramento County household.

Child care fees are rising as providers face increased costs for rent and labor, experts said. Licensing requirements make running a child care center expensive by mandating that many providers employ one staff member for every four infants or one adult for every 12 preschoolers.

Increased costs have priced out thousands of local families, experts say. They are instead turning to friends, family, neighbors and other forms of unlicensed child care.

"Many of these families are piecing together what it takes for child care," said Anthony Garcia, director of community services at Child Action, Inc., a nonprofit that helps connect Sacramento County families to child care.

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This is Tipping Point, our new initiative focused on telling the stories of the Sacramento region's evolution. We have formed a team of reporters and editors who will write weekly stories focused on the challenges and opportunities in the region.

Another team of journalists will organize community forums to open a conversation about how we avoid the mistakes of San Francisco and Seattle, where progress for a few came at the expense of so many.

We will also remain rooted in our commitment to holding the powerful accountable.

Why we did this story. Child care costs are even more expensive -- and rising even faster -- in Yolo County, where the average cost for placing an infant at a child care center was $1,419 a month in 2018, up 28 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation.

Infant costs at a child care center averaged about $1,300 a month in Placer County, up by 7 percent from 2012, and $1,257 a month in El Dorado County, up 3 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation.

Local parents who want more affordable care often turn to smaller, licensed family child care homes. But prices at those homes are also usually high. Average monthly costs for infant care at licensed family child care homes in the Sacramento region ranged from about $800 to $900, depending on the county. The average cost for infant care at family child care homes in Sacramento County rose about 26 percent from 2012 to 2018, after adjusting for inflation.

The situation improves a little as children get older. Average monthly preschool costs in the Sacramento region ranged from about $800 to $1,000 at child care centers and from about $750 to $850 at licensed family care homes, state data show.

Local families are increasingly competing for fewer child care openings. The number of licensed child care slots fell by about 5,600, or 11 percent, from 2012 to 2017, according to detailed portfolios produced by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. The decreases were especially sharp among smaller, family care homes.

"We have seen a steady decline, an unfortunate decline, in family child care homes over the years," Garcia said.

Government subsidies are available to help economically disadvantaged families afford child care. About 2 million children are eligible for those subsidies, though most eligible families don't get them, according to an analysis from the California Budget and Policy Center.

Much of the state's funding for child care goes to families participating in CalWORKS, the state's social assistance program for unemployed parents. Funding is also available for "working poor" families not participating in CalWORKS, but competition for limited dollars is fierce, Garcia said. In Sacramento County, "It's a very long waiting list: Thousands of children," Garcia said.

Payton learned about that long waiting list earlier this month when she went to Child Action for help. She also learned not much was available for someone earning $50,000 a year because so many others need aid even more. Those on the waiting list are ranked according to need, Garcia said, so families earning little tend to get subsidies sooner.

"For those people who are not super duper broke but trying to make an honest living there aren't really any resources," Payton said. "I am not broke enough to get any help but I don't make enough to get by."

Payton's licensed provider at a family child care home charges $800 a month -- a rate that Payton acknowledges is "really good." But her child's father has stepped back from their lives, she said, and rent at her apartment in the Pocket neighborhood is about $1,900 a month. She said she does not have family in Sacramento to help her with child care and she may need to move to a cheaper place, though she is concerned about finding somewhere else that is safe.

"I am picking and choosing what I pay," she said. "I have a hit a wall. I am trying to stay sane. But it has just been a challenge." Renée Grace, 28, is a mother of 2-year-old twin boys in Natomas. She earns $2,400 each month as a preschool teacher, and spends $2,280 on their child care -- nearly breaking even.

Her sons have been on Child Action's waitlist since they were born, which would save her about $1,500 a month. Grace applied to enroll them in a Montessori preschool, but only one slot was available. The twins spend weekdays rotating in attendance: one stays home with a sitter, and the other goes to preschool.

If she doesn't get subsidies soon, Grace plans to enroll her twins in the preschool program where she works. She will pay about $1,200 total with her employee discount.

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