The cost of childcare is reaching a breaking point and exacting a mental toll. “I don’t think that having children should only be for the wealthy and that’s kind of how I feel right now,” said Julie Groce, a Grand Blanc mom.
MICHIGAN—Julie Groce always wanted to play sports growing up. She longed for brand-name clothes. Like other children, she could barely contain her excitement when one of the instantly recognizable Scholastic Book Club flyers arrived in her classroom.
She was, in other words, a typical American kid.
But in other ways, Groce’s family stood out in the affluent, lily-white village of Lake Orion, Michigan. Her father was a white man born and raised in Michigan, but her mother was Filipino and the couple didn’t have much money. After her parents divorced, her father raised her on his own. She qualified for free school lunches, wore thrift store clothes, and missed out on afterschool programs and clubs because they cost too much. And, unfortunately for the young child, her family couldn’t afford to buy any of those Scholastic books.
Those experiences growing up informed Groce’s own approach to parenting: She vowed that she would wait to have kids until she could provide for them. More than anything, she wanted to avoid the instability and struggles of her own childhood.
“I couldn’t bring someone into the world and then not be able to buy the things I want for them,” Groce told The ‘Gander. “I did not want to repeat that for my kid.”
Groce, now 37 and living in Grand Blanc, is married and has a 3-year-old named Adam. She and her husband both work full-time—he’s in the information technology field and she’s a math coach who trains educators on how to teach the subject. But Groce still sometimes feels like she’s not able to give Adam everything he needs.
The biggest hurdle Groce has encountered is one facing many Michigan families: the lack of affordable, accessible child care. Groce had for years lived in Arizona—where she had moved for a teaching job—but returned home to Michigan during the pandemic to be closer to her elderly grandmother and the rest of her family. Affordable daycare had always been difficult to find for the couple, but after the move, it proved nearly impossible.
The difficulty of the process took a mental toll and made Groce feel like she was failing as a mom.
“I was so worried about doing what’s right by Adam and wanting to provide him the best opportunities for everything,” she said. “I would love to send him to the fancy [childcare center], but we couldn’t afford it.”
The family ultimately enrolled their son in the only program that he qualified for and that was available to them. The fees added up to more than $1,000 per month—roughly the equivalent of their mortgage payment. That number dropped down to $880 when Adam turned 3, but his childcare costs still take up “over 13%” of their monthly income, Groce said.
While the financial impact of having reliable child care has been substantial, the bigger picture trade-offs have been an even more bitter pill for Groce to swallow.
“We just had this huge conversation and we decided not to have another kid,” she said. “If it wasn’t for [the cost of child care], we would be able to afford another child.”
Groce grew emotional as she described feeling helpless.
“I’m so grateful for the son that we have. He’s fantastic. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “But I also just feel like I should be able to have another kid if that’s what I wanted, because I feel like I’ve been trying to be responsible.”
What Does Valuing Family Life Look Like?
Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to afford the costs associated with having children in the United States: Many couples are deciding to have just one kid, or none at all. More than half of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, and millions of families like Groce’s don’t make enough money to cover steep daycare fees.
The lack of affordable, quality, and available child care has been an issue for years, but finally boiled over during the pandemic. The closure of childcare centers forced millions of women to leave the labor force in order to care for their kids and contributed to a growing mental health crisis among moms. Groce was arguably one of the lucky ones who was able to enroll her son in a childcare program, but it’s come at a cost.
If things were different, Groce said—if families had more help and if child care were more affordable—she would have had Adam sooner, and expanding their family would seem more feasible.
Here’s where there’s some good news. Things might be different soon enough. President Joe Biden is working with Congress to pass a once-in-a-generation investment in helping working families. It would:
- Invest in subsidies to increase the availability of child care and make it more affordable.
- Fund free universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
- Extend the Democrats’ child tax credit expansion that was included in the most recent COVID-19 relief law.
The plan, which has received no support from Republicans, would represent a wholesale overhaul of the American childcare system and bring the nation one step closer to actually meeting the needs of families like Groce’s.
“The last time we had any sort of a comprehensive childcare system was World War II,” said Julie Kashen, director of women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, an independent progressive think tank. “We say we value families, we say we value children, but this will actually demonstrate that we as a country do.”
Child Care in Michigan Is Expensive and Unavailable
Parents all across the Great Lake state are finding themselves in the same situation as Groce. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the average annual cost of infant care in the state is $10,861, or $905 per month. The median household income in Michigan, meanwhile, is only $57,144.
This means a typical family might spend nearly 20% of their earnings on child care—far above the 7% figure that the US Department of Health and Human Services has set as the upper limit for “affordable” child care. By this standard, only 9.3% of Michigan families can “afford” infant care, according to EPI.
A recent survey from the nonprofit group Parents Together drives home the scope of the crisis. Only 1 in 6 Michigan parents said they considered their child’s care program to be affordable.
Affordability isn’t the only issue; availability is also a problem. As of 2018, 44% of Michiganders lived in a childcare desert, defined as a census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that lacked an adequate supply of childcare slots.
The shortage is driven largely by the meager wages childcare workers earn. The average childcare worker in Michigan earns just $23,020 per year, according to the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children. The borderline poverty wages cause constant turnover, which affects providers’ abilities to care for children.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, as many centers were forced to close, reduce their hours, or reduce the number of openings they had for children.
Groce experienced these problems when she was searching for a program for Adam.
“A lot of places were either temporarily closed or permanently closed. And then on top of that, if they were accepting anybody new, there was a long wait list,” she said. “Really, it only gave us one option, so we were backed into a corner.”
Currently, 87% of childcare centers in Michigan are dealing with staffing shortages, with 79% identifying low wages as the main barrier to recruiting educators, according to a new survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. As a result, 49% of programs are serving fewer children, 38% have longer waiting lists, 25% are unable to open classrooms, and 28% have reduced operating hours.
The Childcare Crisis Is Hurting Moms’ Mental Health
The residual impact of these shortages trickles down to parents, especially moms. While many parents like Groce are able to maintain their careers, others can’t.
The existence of the gender pay gap—in which women earn only 84% of what men do—and the gendered expectation that women are primarily responsible for child care mean that in heterosexual relationships, mothers have historically been more likely than fathers to leave the workforce or make career concessions to care for their children.
That proved doubly true last year. Mothers were more likely than fathers to lose their jobs or leave the labor force during the early months of the pandemic, and 45% of mothers of school-age children were not actively working in April 2020, according to the US Census Bureau. That number dipped to 35% by this past January, but 10.1 million mothers who live with their school-age children were still either on leave from work, unemployed, or not in the labor force altogether, compared to only 3.8 million fathers.
“A lot of the moms in this area felt that everything was kind of crashing in on them and the decisions that they had to make were pretty extreme—to stay in the workforce or to leave the workforce,” said Elyssa Schmier, a resident of Huntington Woods and the vice president of government relations and national budget for MomsRising, a national advocacy group.
Whether they left the workforce or not, the stressors of the past 18 months have sent many moms spiraling into a mental health crisis.
“We’ve definitely seen a drastic increase [of maternal mental health disorders] because of the increased anxiety about the pandemic and then increased financial stressors,” said Shalini Wickramatilake, policy director for 2020 Mom Team, a nonprofit focused on maternal mental health. “Anxiety is high, and that can lead to a whole host of mental health issues for moms in particular because of their role in families.”
A March 2021 poll from YouGov found that 52% of mothers across the US said their mental health has gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic began, compared to just 30% of fathers.
While the closure of schools and childcare centers had a particularly overwhelming effect on mothers of toddlers and school-age children, new moms have always been vulnerable to mental health disorders, such as postpartum depression. Before the pandemic, as many as one in five moms suffered from a maternal mental health disorder. The crisis only worsened in 2020: One study found that visits for postpartum mental health treatment spiked 30% during the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic really revealed just how much of a house of cards that so many women, and especially mothers, have built their lives on,” Kashen, of the Century Foundation, said. “It blew the house cards all the way down.”
Biden’s Plan to Build Back Better
Once the house of cards has fallen, there are two options: Do nothing or build it back better.
After the various catastrophes of the past 18 months, there is now substantial momentum behind a push to overhaul the nation’s childcare infrastructure, with President Biden leading the charge. As part of his Build Back Better agenda, he and Democratic lawmakers in Congress have already made the child tax credit (CTC) more generous, providing nearly all working families with direct payments of $250 to $300 per month per child through the end of the year. Families will also receive another $1,500 to $1,800 per child in 2022, when they file their taxes.
Biden’s child tax credits, which began going out in July, are already having a massive impact. Data from the US Census Bureau found that after the first round of payments went out, the number of Michigan households with children reporting that they did not have enough to eat dropped by nearly 25%.
Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonpartisan policy institute, touted the importance of the credit. “Having money in a mom’s purse right now is really important. It means more food on the table and it means getting caught up perhaps with rent, or with utilities,” she said.
Groce, the Grand Blanc mom, described the credit as a “game-changer” for her family; she plans to use the money on child care and to buy Adam a new bed.
For many other Michigan families—approximately 42%, according to the Census Bureau—the funds are mostly going toward paying off debt.
While the credit is no doubt making a huge impact already, Biden and Democrats in Congress—including Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation—believe more can be done to help families.
They are currently working on a bill that would raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans and corporations in order to expand childcare subsidies to make it more affordable; increase pay for childcare providers to a minimum of $15 per hour; fund universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds; and extend the child tax credit.
“This proposal has the possibility of being one of the most impactful pieces of legislation we’ve seen in decades,” Schmier said. “It’s incredibly comprehensive and wide-reaching, and I think that it’s the type of recovery that Michigan families need.”
Despite its popularity, every Michigan Republican in Congress—including freshman Rep. Peter Meijer, who represents an increasingly competitive district—made clear they have no intention of supporting Biden’s plan.
“I think that if Republicans want to say that they’re the party of family values, they need to start demonstrating that they value families,” Kashen said. “Playing partisan politics with families’ lives is really disappointing.”
While Biden’s plan does not currently contain any direct mental health components, reducing a family’s financial stress and providing a sense of economic security could help address the maternal mental health crisis.
“Universal pre-K, subsidized child care, and extending the child tax credit—all of those impact the social determinants of maternal mental health,” Wickramatilake said. “Those provisions in the bill are all important. They’re supporting families and could reduce those stressors that moms are dealing with currently and ultimately increase their well-being and mental health.”
But Wickramatilake wants Democrats to go even further and incorporate the Moms Matter Act into their bill. That proposal would expand maternal mental health services—particularly for moms in the postpartum period—and increase access to treatment. It would also diversify the maternal mental health and substance use disorder workforce.
“Moms are not getting the support that they need currently,” Wickramatilake said. “A lot of people need that help.”
It remains to be seen if Biden ultimately gets his agenda passed, but one thing is clear: If he succeeds, it would be a revelation for moms. Groce said she would feel less stressed about finances, be able to better provide for Adam, and maybe even have the second child she wants.
“That might open that conversation up again for us,” she said.
It would also prove to her that politicians actually care about making life better for working families like hers. Right now, she does not feel that way. “I don’t think that having children should only be for the wealthy and that’s kind of how I feel right now,” Groce said. “It very much feels like we’re not wealthy, we’re not like the top of the middle class so we can’t have more than one kid.”