The parents who sent their babies off to full-day kindergarten or first grade this week must feel like they just got a big raise.
New information about the high costs of quality child care — it can cost as much as a year in college — indicates that middle- and upper-middle-class families are having the same difficulties finding the money to pay for it as the working poor.
Alissa Quart, in a New York Times essay that drew a great deal of attention, wrote that child-care costs can easily consume all of a middle-class couple's disposable income, while child care can cost low-income families more than food or housing.
Child care costs more in the United States than anywhere else in the world, an average of almost $12,000 a year. And in 28 states, the cost for two kids is more than one parent can early from a 40-hour-a-week, minimum-wage job, according to a report from Child Care Aware.
Overall, while the costs of food and clothing — and to a lesser extent, transportation — have been declining significantly since 1960, the cost of child care and education have grown from 2 percent of the cost of raising a child to 18 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, whether mom works outside the home is rarely in doubt. She must, even if she has a partner, because it takes two incomes to provide for the basics.
Because institutional child care can be prohibitively expensive, the family will often cobble together an unsatisfactory arrangement of tag-team jobs, neighbors, older children or relatives to make it work.
And the price the family pays continues to climb when these children are found to be behind the curve when starting school, compared to classmates who were in formal day-care settlings or paid preschool.
For those higher up the economic ladder, working motherhood is less about self-fulfillment now than it ever was. Nor has it been about strongly held personal beliefs about who should be raising our kids. Two incomes are increasingly required for any family to make ends meet, even if most of the second paycheck goes to child care.
Employment is tenuous or shrinking. Wages have been stagnant for years. Employers are cutting hours and benefits while the cost of living keeps going up. At the very least, it is risky for mom or dad to give up a job to stay home with the kids.
Even those families in the upper middle class must run the numbers when it comes to mom returning to work. What's the point if her entire paycheck goes to child care and the ancillary costs of working?
I would argue that the cost of child care is not hers alone to bear anymore than the mortgage is his. It is an expense of family life, and much more goes into calculating its value than whether mom clears enough to pay the sitter.
For example, for every two years a woman stays out of the workforce, her earnings fall by 10 percent. If she stays out until baby No. 3 enters school, that can be a significant financial hit over a lifetime of work — and to her eventual Social Security benefits.
What is the answer?
President Barack Obama has suggested a 94-cent-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes that would both discourage smoking, especially among the young, and provide money that would be used for early childhood education.
But there is a residual resistance to institutionalizing the care of infants and toddlers in this country. We imagine babies being snatched out of the arms of mothers and warehoused in a huge room full of cribs. But this, along with a 12-month school year, could go a long way toward providing quality care for families everywhere, from cities to suburbs to rural areas.
Since the publication of "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan's manifesto of the unhappy housewife, we have thought of working motherhood as a matter of personal satisfaction and the fulfillment of promise. I don't know if it was ever so benign, but it isn't now. It is a matter of survival for families — not just mothers — at all but the very highest income levels.
It is morally right that we should find a way to support families with quality, affordable child care. And it makes a hell of a lot of economic sense, too.
Susan Reimer's columns run on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com