With rising child-care cost, many parents are paying to work

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; B01

I really thought it wouldn't get much worse than the unpaid college internship.

I raced from that gig in my duct-taped car to make it to my paying job as a waitress. I barely scraped by.

But 20 years later, I'm horrified to realize that my ramen days were more lucrative than the illogical mess I've got going today.

Because right now, most weeks, I actually pay to work.

And I'm not the only one.

This is embarrassing and stupid and I didn't want to talk about it for a while. Only recently did I begin quietly commiserating with others on the playground and learn that this is a common rite of passage for many parents of young children, when child-care costs are at their highest.

"Glad to know I'm not the only one out there. I was starting to think I'm crazy for still working," one D.C. mom who works at a university told me.

It's a situation among middle-class and professional women that is becoming increasingly commonplace, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress and the Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Their report looks at the "Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict" -- the poor, the middle class and the professionals -- and how America's status as the hardest-working developed nation in the world clashes with the reality that we also have the paltriest options for family support.

There is the familiar narrative of low-income parents who figure out that it pays more to leave the crummy, minimum-wage job and collect welfare at home than to get child care. And often, when they do work, they deal with substandard child care, erratic work schedules, no sick days, no health care and a host of other horrors.

But the report also focused on the "missing middle," American families that are squarely middle-income and are caught between being too well off for subsidized child care but making too little to enable one parent to stay home.

One possible solution might come with President Obama's proposal this week to double the child-care tax credit for families earning less than $85,000 and to increase federal funding of programs by $1.6 billion.

And more help like this is necessary because now, for parents in this pickle, quitting a job to stay home with children -- especially in this economy -- is a shortsighted solution.

"If you're leaving the workforce to take care of your kids, that financial calculus may make sense in the immediate year or two," said Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the D.C.-based Center for American Progress and one of the authors of the study. "But looking at the long-term economic health of a family, that can be devastating."

When you step off a work path, you lose seniority, experience, benefits -- workforce capital that is difficult to regain once the kids are in school (assuming they go to a free public school, of course).

Boushey calls taking time off to care for kids a "lifetime pay penalty" for some parents.

That's what Julia Christian, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, wants to avoid. She, too, doesn't make enough to cover the cost of day care for her daughter.

"I think there are more people in this boat than people are aware of," Christian said. "It's really sad.

"The next logical question, of course, is, why work?" Christian said. "When it's not for a paycheck, you have to start talking about sense of self and professional accomplishment and seniority and pride. That's a hard argument to win."

According to the National Women's Law Center, the percentage of women in the American workforce has increased by 35 percent since 1980. And the typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week at work in 2006 than it did in 1979, according to Boushey's report.

The availability and affordability of child care, however, is not rising at the same rate.

Most of us don't have 9-to-5 jobs. Affordable child care is often a 9-to-5 solution.

And when you work longer than the day care center is open, your child-care options are suddenly frighteningly narrow and complicated. For many of us, it's a high-wire juggling act that feels held together with tape and spit: babysitters, aftercare, school, preschool, nanny.

And most of us really can't afford all that.

So we call it an investment, paying to work for a couple of years, digging into savings and cutting to the bone before the kids are in school.

And once that happens, it'll be nice to finally stop eating ramen.

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