Better World

Day care waitlists are so long, moms are quitting their jobs or choosing to stop having kids

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This story was originally published by The 19th.

How have long day care waitlists affected you and your family? Have you seen success in securing a slot, and if so, how long did that take? What questions or concerns do you have about the process? The 19th wants to hear from you.

Erica Manoatl got on waitlists for child care when she was about 12 weeks pregnant with her daughter. It should have been enough time, she thought then. Now, her daughter is almost a year and a half old. Manoatl is still waiting. 

In early 2021, Manoatl got on three waitlists for area day cares in Denver, paying about $150 for each application. With 16 weeks of parental leave, that gave her almost a year of runway to get off of the lists. But shortly after her daughter was born in November 2021, the day cares all told her it could be another year and a half to two years’ wait.

After her leave ended, Manoatl hired a nanny at a much higher cost than a child care center, but after a few weeks the nanny quit when she was recruited to a job with higher pay. So Manoatl and her husband tried to do the unsustainable: care for their daughter while both working full-time from home.

The arrangement lasted eight months before it was clear it was putting an immense strain on their work and family lives. 

“We both looked around and were like, ‘This is just really stressful and we are not very happy,’” Manoatl said. “I don’t know what kind of parenting we were able to provide for our kid when that was the situation.” 

By the end of 2022, they still didn’t have a day care spot. They couldn’t both keep working from home with a 1-year-old. Something had to give — so Manoatl did. Her husband took an offer for a job that paid a bit more, and she quit hers. 

Now, she spends her days caring for her toddler, and at night, after bedtime, she’ll work three to four hours as a consultant, mostly writing work for the public health industry. It’s far removed from her previous work in child advocacy and policy. 

“It’s still rough acknowledging that I spent a lot of time prepping to come into this career, which I really love,” she said. She loves spending time with her daughter during the day, and she’s trying to focus on the opportunities this path is giving her. But the journey here has been tinged with sadness and genuine surprise: How could something as simple as a waitlist derail her life in such a profound way? 

The months- and yearslong wait to get into a child care center, even for parents who get on lists as early as conceivably possible, is one of the most infuriating symptoms of a child care industry in market failure, still struggling to recover after it was wrecked by the pandemic.   

While almost every industry has returned to pre-pandemic levels, child care is still short 60,000 teachers as of February. Nearly 16,000 centers and home-based day cares closed between December 2019 and March 2021, according to a report by Child Care Aware, a leading child care advocacy organization. That amounts to a drop in the supply of child care of 9 percent overall and 10 percent for family child care homes, a more affordable option for many families. 

“The fragile equilibrium, the treading water that child care was doing before the pandemic, has now failed,” said Elliot Haspel, the director of climate and young children at the think tank Capita, and author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”

“So we’re seeing a whole lot more parents and a whole lot more programs end up underwater. There is no question that we are seeing bigger waitlists in a whole lot of communities.”

Centers spend an enormous portion of their revenue paying for staff costs. On average, states mandate one teacher for every four babies for safety, and the ratio grows as kids get older. That requires a lot of staff to operate a center or even keep a classroom open. As a result, day cares can only afford to pay teachers just about minimum wage. In fact, child care teachers are some of the lowest paid people in the entire country. On average, doggy day care workers are paid more than child care teachers. 

Yet parents still shoulder a huge sticker price. Day care costs more than in-state college tuition in 34 states and Washington, D.C., with the average cost coming in at almost $11,000 a year. 

It’s a system that doesn’t work for the centers, doesn’t work for the teachers and doesn’t work for the parents. 

Calculating just how much the pandemic increased waiting lists is a challenge. There is no centralized source for the data, and extreme variability exists across states, localities and even individual centers on how the data is collected. Some waitlists are kept in notebooks rather than digitized. 

But there’s evidence lists are getting longer. 

An October survey of 12,000 child care providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 38 percent have longer waiting lists as a result of recent staffing shortages and about half say they want to serve more children. A survey of Pennsylvania’s child care providers in February turned up much the same: 38,321 children are on waiting lists compared with 32,500 a year ago, an 18 percent increase. 

An analysis of data for The 19th by WaitlistPlus, a software provider that manages lists on behalf of child care centers, found that the average length of a list has ballooned 28 percent from February 2020 to February 2023, growing from 185 kids on average to 236. 

For those who linger on those lists, like Manoatl, the waiting has uncovered just how little autonomy parents actually have when it comes to choosing what care they want for their babies. They are at the mercy of a phone call: Whichever center calls first is where they’ll go. And if they don’t call, it’s usually mom’s work that will be disrupted. 

“In my opinion, we were not given a choice here,” Manoatl said. “Maybe if we had been given a choice we would have chosen this setup, but this setup now doesn’t really bother me as much — it’s more the lack of choice. We wanted her to be in a child care center.

“It’s very hard for me to accept that we can’t do that.” 

As waitlists grow, many of the parents stuck on them have resorted to all manner of workarounds to get a slot. 

Some get on lists before they even conceive a child or the second they find out they’re pregnant — before the “stick is dry,” as one parent put it. Day cares have found out about pregnancies before family members. 

Centers often field incessant calls from parents hoping their interest will bump them higher on lists. Other parents have joined churches to get priority in those child care centers. Even Mother’s Day Out or Mother’s Morning Out programs, part-time child care programs typically run by churches, have seen parents camping out in parking lots on registration day to try to get a slot. 

Parents with means have offered to pay several months up front if it means skipping the list, Haspel said. And in some cases, parents told The 19th they’ve had other families with kids already at a center write them letters of recommendation to see if that will push them higher on a waitlist.

It’s a system born of desperation, but it’s deepening the inequalities already present in child care. 

“The bigger concern there is who tends to have the wherewithal to navigate complicated systems, and it tends to be those with privilege or the affluent,” Haspel said. “The vast majority of child care administrators do their level best to have a fair system,” and ultimately there is only so much maneuvering that parents can do because there are so few spots to begin with. 

Child care is hard to access even for high- or middle-income families. At best, there is one spot for every two children who need care, said Linda Smith, director of the early childhood initiative at think tank the Bipartisan Policy Center. Add any additional factor — a single parent, a child with a disability, twins — and getting quality child care is near impossible. It’s those same families who most need the care that have fewer resources when it comes to finding a way off a waitlist. 

“In the years I’ve been doing this, the folks that are always the hardest hit by this issue are typically single parents and simultaneously parents of disabled children. The options of care are so few and far between for them,” said Nina Perez, the national director of early learning at MomsRising, an advocacy network made up of mothers across the country.

There’s a knowledge gap to even begin the process: The families who know they need to get on a list during pregnancy often are in higher socioeconomic brackets, Smith said. Low-income families and families of color with fewer resources may not have the information sources — from a quality gynecologist and obstetrician to a highly involved parent group that knows the ins and outs — to inquire about child care early. 

There’s also the cost barrier. The 19th spoke to nearly a dozen parents who were on waitlists, and most reported application fees of $50 to $200 to get on a list, some of which are nonrefundable. 

Places with no waiting list tend to be higher cost, and the option of going to a center with a smaller waitlist that is further away could be nonexistent for a single-parent household.

When things don’t line up, single parents usually can’t quit a job to focus on care. 

“We work with moms who live at the poverty line, and candidly, there is no option — you have to work,” said Chastity Lord, the president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit that works with more than 1,500 single mothers and runs five child care centers. Moms have to compromise “the development of their child, the development of themselves, as well as the financial implications.” 

Not getting off a waitlist means putting a child in the care of a family member or a neighbor. It means sacrificing the educational environment a center offers. It may mean moving to another city closer to family to cobble together some child care, or mounting credit card debt to pay for the only center without a wait. It could mean being stuck in a situation where you’re not confident in the care your child is getting. 

It means you are deprived of choice.

Perez is currently working with families whose children go to a center in Florida that has been accused of child abuse. While those families wait for the investigation to conclude, they can’t move their children elsewhere. 

Where would they go? The waiting lists are too long. 

When Deyanira Contreras looks down her waiting list, she sees hundreds of families she will never be able to serve. 

The list for her day care center, Kids Campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has 504 children on it. The longest wait is for her two infant classrooms — 185 kids for two classrooms with 16 total spots, neither of which has current availability. Already for the next school year, one of the two infant classrooms will be made up entirely of siblings of older kids who are at the center already and get priority. 

The wait is one to two years for most classrooms. Contreras said her staff is often fielding calls from desperate parents asking where they are on the list. The center gives priority to students and staff at the nearby Santa Fe Community College, and parents will go so far as to take classes if it’ll mean moving up on the list. 

“Every time we open a spot they feel like they won the lottery because it’s hard to get,” said Contreras, who is in her first year as director. “It’s sad at the same time because we receive [difficult] phone calls from families — ‘I can lose my job if I don’t find child care.’”

Since the pandemic, Contreras can count at least four area day cares that closed, and some could only reopen at reduced capacity because of insufficient staffing. That has made her waitlist longer, and she knows that investing in her staff is the only thing that is going to shorten it, if only marginally. 

The median hourly pay for a child care worker in the United States was $13.22 in 2021, the most recent date for which data is available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers earn more in retail ($14.03 an hour) or as housekeepers ($13.84 an hour). One of Contreras’ prekindergarten teachers was working at McDonald’s and making more money than working at the center, she said, adding that it was “very embarrassing” for her.

That’s why Kids Campus spent nearly all the money it received through the pandemic’s American Rescue Plan economic package — that largest single investment in American child care in history — toward raising salaries. About 90 percent of the $453,700 received from a stabilization grant went to salaries, raising hourly pay for teacher assistants from $13 to up to $17 depending on their certification. Hourly teacher pay went up from $14 to $20 if a teacher had an early childhood certificate or as much as $28 with a master’s degree. Cooks now earn $15.50, from $13 an hour. 

“Some centers were investing in playgrounds. We were like, ‘That’s not OK, we have to invest in teachers,’” Contreras said. The money helped them retain every single teacher at the center. 

But the labor shortage at child care centers is difficult to tackle. In Hawaii, for example, there’s a requirement that educators have a degree in childhood education to work at a day care, which makes attracting college graduates to earn about $15 an hour in one of the most expensive states in the country an enormous challenge, said Carol Wear, the interim executive director of PATCH, the state’s child care resource and referral agency.  

As a result, some centers have entirely closed their infant classrooms, where the ratios of teacher to student are smallest and it’s most expensive to provide care. On one island, Kaua’i, there are no spots for infants under a year old at any licensed child care center. Other centers have stopped keeping lists altogether.

In Alaska, many providers have also stopped keeping lists — demand is so high and there are so few spots spread out across the state that it’s easier for centers to take the next referral or “fill those spots with the next caller” than to manage a list, said Stephanie Berglund, CEO of thread, Alaska’s child care resource and referral agency. It’s an equity issue that is potentially blocking parents who don’t have the means to constantly call or travel to a center for a tour.

Among the calls that thread receives from parents are those who say they are quitting their jobs because they can’t find care, she said. Parents are leaving the state. They’re deciding not to have more children.

“We’ve never seen parents more desperate and more frustrated,” Berglund said.

There are some things that can be done to help with the waitlists themselves, like helping centers automate and “clean” their lists. That’s where companies like Kinside have been growing — they work with centers to digitize lists so that they are searchable and they are up to date, reflecting parents who are still searching for care. Offered as an employee benefit, Kinside helps parents see where they are on a list, and the company will call centers on their behalf to search for an open spot.

“What’s happening for a lot of providers is when they do have an open spot … they are calling 10,12, 20 families to offer a seat and those families have either found other child care, they are no longer of age or they’ve just made it work by leaving the workforce or changing their schedule or changing jobs,” said Julia Barfield, the head of employer engagement at Kinside.

But list automation only goes so far. What Smith and other advocates see as the real solution is to funnel money into child care — to subsidize it. And that will take investing in a workforce and an industry that has been undervalued because of “gender attitudes, racial attitudes in terms of who is doing the work, how the work is seen,” said Karen Schulman, the director of state child care policy at the National Women’s Law Center. 

About 95 percent of child care workers are women, and nearly 40 percent are people of color. 

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget calls for more than $600 billion over 10 years to expand child care access for more than 16 million children. It includes an additional $9 billion for the block grant that currently serves as the main mechanism for funding child care in the states and expands a tax credit that encourages businesses to provide child care benefits to employees. Another $325 billion would go toward creating a paid family and medical leave policy over the course of a decade with up to 12 weeks of leave covered for “eligible employees,” though it’s not yet clear what those parameters are. It’s something of a magnitude that has never been proposed by a presidential budget.

But Republicans are in control of the House with goals to lower spending, meaning that plan is not likely to get far, despite bipartisan agreement that child care is in crisis

In the meantime, the president is trying something else. Manufacturers who are looking to tap into subsidies under the Chips Act, focused on bolstering U.S.-made semiconductors, will have to offer their employees child care if they want to qualify for $150 million or more in government subsidies.

It’s a well-intentioned attempt, Haspel said, and an acknowledgment that to attract more women to those fields there have to be better care options. But it could also help make the case for child care as an employer benefit, like health care, which could lock out workers in low-paid industries, making a dire situation even worse.  

“It’s not a short-term solution because it’s such a marginal impact and the danger of getting this idea of, ‘child care should be done through employers’ in the water does material damage to the case for universal child care,” Haspel said. 

If the United States really wanted to fund child care, it could look like Germany, where every child over 1 has the legal right to a child care slot and their parents can sue the government for lost wages if they are unable to find adequate care, Haspel said. Or the United States could just look closer to home and fund child care like it does public education for kids over the age of 5. 

“There are plenty of issues [in public education],” Haspel said, “but no one’s on a waitlist for a slot at their public school.” 

Until there’s major change, families like Manoatl’s and countless others will see their lives foundationally changed because they could not get care when they needed it. 

It’s what happened to Lindsay Saunders and her husband when she got pregnant. He had just immigrated from Zambia and she had a high-risk pregnancy that drained them both as they focused on keeping her healthy. When she did get on a wait list, she was more than halfway through her pregnancy. They put down a nonrefundable deposit for more than $100 at a center they liked, but couldn’t afford to do so at more day cares. 

When her baby was born in October 2021, there still wasn’t a spot for him. Because she’d changed jobs that year, Saunders didn’t qualify yet for any paid leave. The most she could afford to take were seven unpaid weeks. Her husband, meanwhile, was trying to find a job, but because they were still waiting for care, it was difficult for him to commit to anything. 

“How could he know when we could start a new job and we could both work full-time if we didn’t know when we would have care?” Saunders said. 

They were offered part-time care in January, and they tried to cut every expense possible to make it work. They were going to a food pantry, she said. And then in February a full-time spot opened up, and her husband got a job. Impeccable timing. 

But getting care was the first challenge. Saunders knew the cost would likely be high, but she wasn’t fully prepared when the final price tag was $1,590 a month — more than their $1,100 mortgage for a two-bedroom townhouse in Raleigh, North Carolina. Saunders works from home, her son’s changing table next to her desk. 

She’s called other centers to check for lower costs, but the tuition was higher. Why bother going through the waitlist debacle again then? 

“When you want the best for your child and your resources are limited, then that really does completely limit your trajectory, but also your children’s trajectory,” Saunders said.

She feels trapped. They can’t move to a house that better fits their family’s needs because care costs them a second mortgage. They can’t even fly to Zambia so her son can meet his family. He’s almost 2.

And Saunders recently came to another devastating conclusion.

In large part because of the high cost of care, she now realizes she will have to compromise on another dream: It is unlikely they will be able to have a second child.

“I am still not accepting of that decision,” said Saunders, who has two siblings and always imagined having multiple kids. “But that is the best decision unless something were to dramatically change with both our resources and the child care system.”