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Child care costs more than college tuition in California

File photo: Child care provider Yecenia Rivas plays with children during a yoga session at at Rivas Family Child Care in Reseda.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Child care provider Yecenia Rivas plays with children during a yoga session at at Rivas Family Child Care in Reseda on Friday morning, Feb. 13, 2015.

There is bipartisan agreement that the state's early childhood system is broken. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed overhauling it, but his proposal doesn't have the support of experts and leaders in the field.

Now two new reports reinforce the myriad of problems with the current system and present alternative suggestions for improving the lot of children under the age of five.

A new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute finds the high cost of child care to be a significant reason why families with small children nationwide are not feeling the bounties of the economic recovery. According to the report, two major economic issues – income inequality and a slowdown in the growth of productivity – would both benefit from investments in the early childhood field.

“American productivity would improve with a better-educated and healthier future workforce,” the report states. “Inequality would be immediately reduced as resources to provide quality child care are progressively made available to families with children.”

In arriving at these findings, the report authors looked at the costs that make up a basic family budget nationwide: rent, healthcare, food, etc. Child care was a significant cost in many states, including California.

Infant care, traditionally more expensive than toddler care or preschool, cost $11,817 in California for one year. Comparatively, preschool for 4-year-olds cost $8,230 annually. These high costs put the state in 11th place nationwide for most costly child care, said Josh Bivens, Policy Director at EPI.

The report authors also compared the cost of child care to college. In California, the average annual cost of in-state public college tuition is $8,903, making a year of infant care significantly more expensive.

For a family with two or more children under five, the burden of child care costs on the family budget was much more significant, according to the report. “A typical family in California would have to spend 31.5 percent of their income on child care for an infant and a 4-year-old,” the report states.

“You have to be really, really rich for this to just not be an economic concern for you,” Bivens told KPCC. “It’s a very broad-based group of families affected by the high cost of child care. … Even very solidly upper middle class families are feeling a pinch from the cost of child care.”

But low-income families struggle the most, Bivens added. “It comes to the point of almost being an economic crisis for low- and moderate-income families,” Bivens said.

According to report findings, “a minimum-wage worker in California would need to work full time for 30 weeks, or from January to July, just to pay for child care for one infant.”

Report authors collated existing research to make an educational case for investing in early childhood programs, citing evidence that quality preschool can reduce the achievement gap.

They also made an economic case.

Nobel winning economist James Heckman has argued that for every dollar invested in a child under five through early childhood programs, there will be an annual 7-10 percent return on investment.

Researchers from EPI looked at various studies and offered overarching solutions. EPI suggests public funding for in-home nurse visits to homes of expectant parents, child care subsidies for families who cannot afford market rate care, and resources to professionalize the early childhood workforce to ensure quality care.

A second report, released Wednesday by Common Sense Media, presents the findings of a panel of California child care experts called the Right Start Commission. Made up of business leaders, policy makers and early childhood experts, the commission took a holistic approach to improving the lot of children under five.

Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media and a commission member, said the commission created a "5-year blue print" that takes a "comprehensive approach to early childhood" to create a "child centered system."

The report suggested improving workplace policies to make it easier for parents of young children. From paid parental leave to the ability to bring baby to work, and from lactation accommodations to improved sick leave provisions, the report's authors argue parents' lives can be made less stressful. The report also details how reliable work schedules, telecommuting, flex-schedules and even compressed work schedules can make a difference.

The report also recommends ways to get preventative healthcare to all children and suggests putting resources towards educating families on how to best support their child's development. It calls for investments to "expand evidence-based support programs that provide information to families about the consequences of toxic stress and the importance of brain development."

"What kind of priorities and choices do we want  make as a state?" Steyer asked. Yet their solution does not rely solely on government funding.

Steyer emphasized the importance of "leadership that the business community must necessarily provide to make this happen." From improving workplaces to accommodate family schedules to direct investments in early learning "pathways to success," the report emphasized the role of business leaders.

Darrell Steinberg, retired California State Senate president pro tem and co-chair of the commission, said state leaders also need to simply the complicated child care system. "We need to actually change the system and fix the system to make it more user friendly for parents and for children," he said. The report suggests a one-stop-shop online portal "to provide parents and caregivers with easy identification of and access to all available early childhood services."

The Right Start Commission also called for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds to be implemented over the next five years.