Juggling a sprouting career and rapidly sprouting children is challenging for any young mother. For Boston native Gina Coletti, that challenge is confounded simply by living in Massachusetts — the nation’s most expensive state for child care.
“It was my only option so I didn’t think twice,” Coletti, 31, tells Watchdog.org. “I was annoyed at how expensive it was, and still am.”
The two major presidential candidates say they are annoyed as well, enough to include sweeping child care reform in their campaign promises.
It’s hard to blame them, or cash-strapped parents, especially when seeing widely publicized reports that child care costs more than college tuition in more than two dozen states, that child care tops 40 percent of single mothers’ yearly income and that only 17 percent of families eligible for child care assistance actually get any.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump say they’ll boost federal aid: Clinton, through more government subsidies and limiting out-of-pocket child care costs to 10 percent of a family’s income; Trump, through more tax deductions, rebates and a new savings account program.
Neither candidate, however, has addressed regulations, which make a sizable difference on the other side of the child care cost ledger.
Mercatus senior research fellow Patrick McLaughlin says that study — by Diana W. Thomas, an associate professor of economics at Creighton University and Devon Gorry, an assistant professor of economics at Utah State University — aligns with a host of others in showing that government regulations such as mandated staff-to-child ratios, group size limits and worker education levels do not guarantee better results, but do guarantee higher costs.
“That’s the kind of activity that can be easily tracked and reported on,” McLaughlin explains. “Regulators can require care centers to file paperwork listing these ratios, for example, and can tout them as evidence of ‘positive actions’ that they’ve taken.”
For instance, Massachusetts requires one staff member for three infants, and averages $17,062 per year for full-time infant care — highest in the nation. Mississippi ranks lowest in average child care expenses — $4,822 per year for full-time infant care — and has a 1:5 staff-to-child ratio.
McLaughlin says the study finds no credible evidence that child-to-staff ratios or class-size regulations deliver any tangible results in measures of child outcome.
But regulations do increase costs. Researchers calculated that adding one infant to a staff-ratio reduced the cost of care $850 to $1,890 per year.
“That’s a lot to pay for an ‘activity’ that doesn’t achieve results,” says McLaughlin.
Coletti says adding one infant to a worker’s care might be acceptable if the savings were significant.
“I don’t believe the addition of one infant would drastically take away from the original three and the savings would be extremely beneficial to families.”
Others would prefer to work the problem from the staffing side.
The non-profit child care provider Ellis Memorial in Boston’s South End has 28 staff members who care for 120 kids. Longtime Ellis CEO Leo Delaney says he prefers to leave the staff-child ratios alone, and instead address the high demand — and low supply — of child-care workers.
“The cost of everything, housing and everything is higher here, not just child care,” Delaney says. “To attract teachers and pay good salaries is a challenge. We have huge vacancies. We even offer starting salaries in the range of $33,000 to $35,000. Compared to the rest of the country, there’s no way they’re paying child care staff that much.”
Delaney says 65 percent of the children at his facility are from low-income or at-risk families. He says he would like to see a government program that offers loan forgiveness for college graduates with teaching degrees who spend a few post-graduate years working at a low-income child-care facility.
“That would be the best incentive in the world. These kids coming out with $100,000 in debt, what a great way to get them into facilities that serve low-income families.”
The Mercatus Center study also addresses the workforce side of the equation, confirming the common belief that better-trained and better-educated child-care workers result in better outcomes for children. The authors suggest cost savings from relaxed regulations could help fund more-educated staff members and result in less staff turnover, both of which have been found to negatively affect child-care quality.
Right now, politicians are eyeing ways to add to the hundreds of millions dished out every year in federal subsidies, with no indication they’ve considered the impact that ever-increasing subsidies have had on the cost of health care, college tuition and housing.
The Mercatus study authors say policymakers and presidential candidates need to broaden their perspective if they want to improve child care.
“Prudent regulatory reform should focus on deregulating those aspects of child care that are least cost-effective,” they conclude.