Single parents spend 90% of their incomes to pay for child care

By Esther Bower
Medill Reports

Valisha White knows there is no sacrifice too great for her two children, Harmony, 9, and Alandis, 5. White, a single parent in Uptown, said she strives to provide the most for her kids amid strapped finances and high child care prices.

“I just had to go get the kids new coats; after that, I had 74 cents in my account, but I’m glad I did it because my kids were warm,” White said.

White works a full-time job and uses state resources to help make ends meet. She always wanted her kids in early developmental programs, but that desire comes at a steep price.

White, 29, represents 33.5% of single-mother households in Chicago. According to research from Child Care Aware of America, single parents like White would pay 90.4% of their incomes to afford Illinois child care for two children.

“Child care is a lot. It’s hard, especially when it costs more than what you make,” said Monae Tennie, another mother with children in day care.

Experts say this is an issue because early education is important for growth but very expensive.

“There is an incredibly strong benefit between quality early learning experiences and positive outcomes later in life,” said Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America. “Child care is expensive and should be expensive because of all that we know about the importance of early childhood for ongoing health and development, but the price parents have to pay for their children to thrive is often more than parents can bear.”

“Invest your dollars in this preventative work early on, and they pay off significantly later in every regard,” said Alissa Chung who teaches in the psychology department at Northwestern University. “No matter how many times we seem to find that, it just it doesn’t reflect where our priorities go.”

Yonah London, who used to work in early childhood education, sees the benefits of child care every day as a case worker for foster care families.

London works with children who do and do not attend day care. For the ones not in center-based care, “it has a huge impact on those kids and their behavior,” London said.

“If you’re in a daycare center daily, it means you’re being read to every day, being exposed to conversation, letters, numbers and routine; kids getting into a routine and understanding school is basically an introduction to the adult world for kids,” London said.

Care-based centers can even offset bad home lives, according to Chung.

“Child care can play a buffering role when things are maybe not so good at home,” said Chung, who also worked in clinical psychology for 18 years. “The bad news ends up being for the kids who have less optimal care in both settings; that ends up being your double disaster.”

Children who grow up in families with less access to child care and resources may struggle with neurological development, according to Anjolii Diaz, an assistant professor of psychological science at Ball State University in Indiana.

“Empirical evidence suggests that children in lower social economic status compared to higher social economic status environments have different brain development and organization,” Diaz said. “That can be attributed to that lack of experience, that lack of interaction.”

White said she witnessed her children grow in social interactions and confidence because of their start at Seeds of Joy Early Learning Centers in Uptown.

“She was learning her name, how to speak Spanish and learning how to write,” White said. “My daughter is an A and B student at school now.”

Derek Davis, who founded Seeds of Joy Early Learning Centers, said he does what he can to provide care to families at an affordable price.

“It’s my ministry in life,” said Davis, who is raising money to open another child care facility.

Tennie, 24, says access to care also means parents have more time to work and provide for their children.

“You don’t have a family member that can always get your child for you, so you have to seek resources such as child care to watch your kids,” Tennie said. “You can’t sit at home all day because you have to make money.”

While White and Tennie located resources to help pay for child care, experts say accurate allocation has not been figured out.

“We need to think about where we’re falling short to ensure that families can get assistance,” Fraga said. “That includes things like expanding income eligibility for subsidy rates and ensuring any administrative barriers for families seeking financial assistance are mitigated.”

Even if programs are in place for families, Chung said she worries about parents accessing them.

“It’s also sometimes confusing that the Department of Children and Family Services is the one that licenses and monitors child care centers, but their reputation in certain communities is for being the agency that takes your children away,” Chung said. “It’s not always a place people are going to be super excited to go.”

White said she is fearful to lose financial assistance because she is not sure how she would continue to provide educational opportunities for her children.

“It’s hard to get to the top because every time you make a little bit more, somebody wants to take a little bit more,” White said. “It’s like every step you take, know it’s three steps taken from you and your children under your feet.”

Photo at top: Derek Davis, founder of Seeds of Joy Early Learning Centers, interacts with children at his child care center in Uptown on Wednesday. The average price of child care in Illinois is almost equal to the average-annual tuition and fees to attend a public four-year college or university. (Esther Bower/MEDILL)