Infant Care in Colorado More Expensive Than College, Study Shows

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Colorado has some of the most expensive infant care in the country, with the price for a year's worth of this vital service costing thousands more than in-state college tuition over the same span.

This statistic is among multiple jaw-droppers contained in a new Colorado-centric report from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit that stresses its bipartisan nature. And Elise Gould, a senior economist for EPI, notes that the strain such expenses place on Coloradans crosses demographic lines.

"There's been a lot of attention on how much low-income families who need infant care and child care are suffering in terms of their ability to make ends meet generally," she says. "With the high cost of housing, food, health care and other expenses, many of them simply don't have enough money if something unusual happens, especially if you mix in child care, which is very hard for a lot of families to afford. But the problem isn't isolated to low-income families. It affects middle-income families as well. It's a widespread problem."

The new study offers evidence aplenty to back up this claim. According to EPI, the average annual cost of infant care in Colorado is $15,325, or $1,277 per month — the eighth-highest in the U.S. among the fifty states and Washington, D.C., where the Institute is based. In contrast, the annual cost for in-state tuition at a four-year public college in the state is $9,540, or $5,785 less. A year's worth of infant care is also higher than the average annual cost of housing in Colorado, $13,829.

Putting these digits into context underscores the burden they impose, Gould believes. "In Colorado, the median income for families with young children — those most likely to need care for their kids — is $73,048 a year. So the $15,000 cost of infant care is more than one-fifth of the family's income that they have to spend for that one child."

As for college, "families may be able to save for years to cover that cost," she continues. "But that's not usually the case with infant care. Most families can't save for years for infant care, and as a result, the cost can be out of reach for many families of young kids."

click to enlarge Elise Gould is a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute. - EPI.ORG
Elise Gould is a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute.
The problem is exacerbated when multiple children are part of the mix. The average cost in Colorado to care for a four-year-old is $12,390. That amount exceeds the aforementioned in-state tuition amount, too — and if a family has both an infant and a four-year-old, the sum hits $27,715, which the study estimates at 50.1 percent more than average rent in the state.

For a family that earns the aforementioned average of $73,048, infant care plus child care for a four-year-old represents 38 percent of the total. "Think of all the other expenses families have," Gould suggests. "Not just housing and food and health care, but also transportation and maybe even college debt. Suddenly, all of your money is eaten away, and that leaves families to decide how they can afford to have children."

What often happens, she points out, "is that one parent, typically the mother, decides to stay home, because the cost of infant care and child care is out of reach financially. But that can put them in a tough spot, because it often takes the income from two parents to make ends meet."

At the same time, Gould feels, "In some ways, child care might not be expensive enough. Families want high-quality early care and education for their kids, and to get that, you have to pay for it. Child care isn't just throwing twenty babies into a room with one educator. It's a labor-intensive industry, and to get high quality, you need to pay for it — and that includes paying teachers enough to attract them, retain them and provide professional development."

That's not happening very often these days. EPI estimates the median salary for a child-care worker in Colorado at $26,880, only slightly higher than the $23,088 earned by those working full-time for minimum wage. Should a child-care worker in Colorado want to put a child in infant care, the cost would eat up 57 percent of that salary — and nationally, the families of child-care workers are more than twice as likely to live in poverty (11.8 percent compared to 5.8 percent) than families in general.

How can this situation be improved? EPI floats the prospect of capping child-care costs for families at 7 percent of their income, which would save the average Colorado family with an infant $9,847 per annum and free up 17 percent of their remaining income to spend on other priorities. But securing funds for such an approach would almost certainly be even more difficult than Governor Jared Polis's successful effort to authorize full-day kindergarten.

Gould emphasizes that her area of expertise doesn't include the politics of child care, "but we're seeing some states and localities move toward a universal pre-K model for some of these kids — opening up public schools for preschool and pre-K programs. That's one direction to go. Another is to provide subsidies to parents to use with licensed providers, so parents could choose home care or centers. And those are only a couple of the options."

At the same time, though, "there's a lot of research that early care in education is important for the development of children at a very important stage," she says, "because it not only gets them ready for school academically, but also emotionally and socially. And if that's what we value in our future, then we need to have a values-based budget."

Click to read EPI's "The Cost of Child Care in Colorado."