What the average American family spends on childcare

Pre-k care.
Pre-k care.
Image: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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Figuring out the cost of daycare in the US is like figuring out the cost of sandwiches. Are we talking the shrink-wrapped kind shoved in a convenient store fridge, or one custom made at a high-end deli counter? Where in the US are you buying these sandwiches? How many do you need?

Given that far more important policy discussions take place around daycare than sandwich options, understanding what US families are actually willing and able to pay for such programs is crucial. Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, recently took on this challenge. Whitehurst reviewed data from US Census Bureau’s 2016 Early Childhood Program Participation Survey, a study of 5,500 representative families with children under the age of five.

In the US as a whole, a family with a child under five with no special needs, no public assistance, and who is in daycare for at least eight hours a week spends a median of $5.31 per hour and $8,320 per year on childcare. Families in the western and northeast portions of the country pay slightly more; those in the south and midwest regions slightly less.

If that figure seems low compared to your own childcare bills, then you’re probably in a higher-earning city—and a higher earner yourself. Brookings reached the same conclusion that previous researchers have: Well-off families are willing and able to pay a lot more for childcare than lower-earning counterparts. High-earning families spend a smaller portion of their total income on childcare, but fork over substantially more for the kind of higher-cost programs that Arizona State University public policy professor Chris Herbst, in an interview with the website FiveThirtyEight, called “the Cadillac of child care.”

Part of the reason that lower-income families spend less on daycare is that they’ve been priced out of daycare altogether. As Quartz At Work has previously noted, more than half of low-income American families whose children are cared for by someone other than a parent during the day use family members as caregivers, according to the Pew Research Center.

In contrast, higher-earning families are increasingly investing in their children’s development, and that includes preschool and daycare programs with better-qualified staff, enriching educational offerings, attractive facilities—and higher tabs.