Tipping Point

‘Not broke enough:’ How surging child care costs are hurting Sacramento families

‘I’m not making enough to get by.’ Preschool teacher struggles to pay for daycare

Single mom Racquel A. Payton has a master’s degree and earns $50,000 a year teaching preschool for Sacramento City Unified. She talks about her struggle to pay for her son’s childcare on Tuesday Aug. 20, 2019.
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Single mom Racquel A. Payton has a master’s degree and earns $50,000 a year teaching preschool for Sacramento City Unified. She talks about her struggle to pay for her son’s childcare on Tuesday Aug. 20, 2019.

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Single mom Racquel A. Payton earns $50,000 a year as a preschool teacher at Sacramento City Unified, but she still struggles to afford child care for her infant son, especially as her rent approaches $2,000 a month.

In desperation, she recently began driving part time for DoorDash, delivering takeout from local restaurants.

“My lease is going to end at the end of the month and I have to decide if I am going to stay,” she said. “I have a master’s degree. I can only imagine how hard it is for those who can’t make even as much as I am making.”

This is the reality of child care costs in Sacramento today: Residents can expect to pay about as much for infant day care as much of the nation spends on rent for an apartment.

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Racquel A. Payton says she struggles to pay for daycare for her son Yahir, 1, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, in Sacramento. The single mom earns $50,000 a year as a preschool teacher at Sacramento City Unified, but she still struggles to afford child care for her infant son, especially as her rent approaches $2,000 a month. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

The average annual cost of full-time care for an infant at a Sacramento County licensed child care center was about $14,200, or $1,187 per month, in 2018, up about 16 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to a Bee review of survey data from the California Department of Education.

For perspective, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment nationwide is about $1,360 a month, and about $1,475 a month in Sacramento, according to listings firm Abodo.com. Annual in-state tuition and fees at UC Davis, if paid in monthly installments, are about $1,207 a month.

For a Sacramento County household earning the median income for the area – about $63,000 a year – that translates to spending about 23 percent of every dollar on child care for each infant.

The rising child care costs in Sacramento illustrate a critical moment for the region as it struggles with how to manage a growing population in the shadow of the higher-income Bay Area, where the average price for full-time infant care is quickly approaching $2,000 a month.

By one measure, child care in Sacramento is now more expensive than in San Francisco. A San Francisco County household earning the median income for the area would pay a slightly lower proportion – about 21 percent – of its income for infant care than the typical Sacramento County household.

Child care fees are rising as providers face increased costs for rent and labor, experts said. Licensing requirements make running a child care center expensive by mandating that many providers employ one staff member for every four infants or one adult for every 12 preschoolers.

Increased costs have priced out thousands of local families, experts say. They are instead turning to friends, family, neighbors and other forms of unlicensed child care.

“Many of these families are piecing together what it takes for child care,” said Anthony Garcia, director of community services at Child Action, Inc., a nonprofit that helps connect Sacramento County families to child care.


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Child care costs are even more expensive – and rising even faster – in Yolo County, where the average cost for placing an infant at a child care center was $1,419 a month in 2018, up 28 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation.

Infant costs at a child care center averaged about $1,300 a month in Placer County, up by 7 percent from 2012, and $1,257 a month in El Dorado County, up 3 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation.

Local parents who want more affordable care often turn to smaller, licensed family child care homes. But prices at those homes are also usually high. Average monthly costs for infant care at licensed family child care homes in the Sacramento region ranged from about $800 to $900, depending on the county. The average cost for infant care at family child care homes in Sacramento County rose about 26 percent from 2012 to 2018, after adjusting for inflation.

The situation improves a little as children get older. Average monthly preschool costs in the Sacramento region ranged from about $800 to $1,000 at child care centers and from about $750 to $850 at licensed family care homes, state data show.

Local families are increasingly competing for fewer child care openings. The number of licensed child care slots fell by about 5,600, or 11 percent, from 2012 to 2017, according to detailed portfolios produced by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. The decreases were especially sharp among smaller, family care homes.

“We have seen a steady decline, an unfortunate decline, in family child care homes over the years,” Garcia said.

Government subsidies are available to help economically disadvantaged families afford child care. About 2 million children are eligible for those subsidies, though most eligible families don’t get them, according to an analysis from the California Budget and Policy Center.

Much of the state’s funding for child care goes to families participating in CalWORKS, the state’s social assistance program for unemployed parents. Funding is also available for “working poor” families not participating in CalWORKS, but competition for limited dollars is fierce, Garcia said. In Sacramento County, “It’s a very long waiting list: Thousands of children,” Garcia said.

Payton learned about that long waiting list earlier this month when she went to Child Action for help. She also learned not much was available for someone earning $50,000 a year because so many others need aid even more. Those on the waiting list are ranked according to need, Garcia said, so families earning little tend to get subsidies sooner.

“For those people who are not super duper broke but trying to make an honest living there aren’t really any resources,” Payton said. “I am not broke enough to get any help but I don’t make enough to get by.”

Payton’s licensed provider at a family child care home charges $800 a month — a rate that Payton acknowledges is “really good.” But her child’s father has stepped back from their lives, she said, and rent at her apartment in the Pocket neighborhood is about $1,900 a month. She said she does not have family in Sacramento to help her with child care and she may need to move to a cheaper place, though she is concerned about finding somewhere else that is safe.

“I am picking and choosing what I pay,” she said. “I have a hit a wall. I am trying to stay sane. But it has just been a challenge.”

Renée Grace, 28, is a mother of 2-year-old twin boys in Natomas. She earns $2,400 each month as a preschool teacher, and spends $2,280 on their child care – nearly breaking even.

Her sons have been on Child Action’s waitlist since they were born, which would save her about $1,500 a month. Grace applied to enroll them in a Montessori preschool, but only one slot was available. The twins spend weekdays rotating in attendance: one stays home with a sitter, and the other goes to preschool.

If she doesn’t get subsidies soon, Grace plans to enroll her twins in the preschool program where she works. She will pay about $1,200 total with her employee discount.

Grace, her husband, and three children live with her in-laws in Natomas. They are spending so much on child care, they cannot afford rent, she said. Six years ago, Grace paid $800 for her oldest son’s child care.

“I don’t know how single mothers do it,” Grace says. “Child care costs so much now, I am just trying to tough it out until they start going to school.”

Julie Ueltzen said she struggles to find a reasonably priced option for child care. She is a single mother who works as a church secretary and says her options are limited. She can’t afford to pay $800 a month for a few days a week.

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Racquel A. Payton, 30, kisses son Yahir, 1, as she dropped him off at daycare, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 in Sacramento. She said she is very thankful it’s located a few blocks from where she lives. She said that her child care costs are $40 a day. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

“I am lucky that I can bring my youngest to work with me, but it’s getting challenging,” Ueltzen said. She said she can earn more money at another job, but she would no longer be able to bring her son to work. The option to bring her son keeps her at a job that pays significantly less.

Maggie Sepulveda, a biologist whose 2-year-old son is in day care, said she and her husband wish to have more children, but they can’t afford it.

“If they want to keep talented, trained, educated, productive women in their workforce, they should help with child care costs,” she said. “There is no work-life balance.”

Child care costs are up across most of the state – and the increases were especially sharp in many urban and suburban population centers.

The average annual cost of full-time day care for an infant at a licensed child care center increased faster than inflation in nearly all of the state’s 30 most-populated counties from 2012 to 2018, according to a Bee review of survey data from the California Department of Education.

The Bay Area is driving much of the trend. Monthly infant care at a child care center in San Francisco averaged more than $1,900 a month in 2018, up by nearly 60 percent from 2012, after adjusting for inflation.

The economics of running a child care center can change dramatically depending on the region or even the neighborhood, experts say.

In a wealthy area such as San Francisco, parents often have enough money to pay more for better care. In those places, fees may rise some as child care centers hire highly-educated workers to boost staffing ratios. Some of that trend may spill over to Sacramento as Bay Area transplants and other well-to-do parents demand the best for their children.

“Babies, infants toddlers need high quality care,” said Simon Workman, director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. “Upper income people recognize that and they are wiling to pay for it.”

But most child care providers have trouble making ends meet, Workman and others said. Meeting child care requirements for licensed care is expensive. “Parents can’t afford to pay that amount and the public subsidies are not enough to fulfill that cost,” Workman said.

California’s subsidies for infant care, though, are more generous than the benefits in many other states, he said.

Labor costs are usually the primary expense for child care providers, but pay for child care workers is often low.

The median wage for preschool teachers in the Sacramento region last year was $14.28 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is about $2.70 an hour more than the median wage for a cook at a fast food restaurant.

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Racquel A. Payton checks information for her second job at DoorDash as she walks her son Yahir, 1, to daycare from her apartment, Tuesday Aug. 20, 2019 in Sacramento. Her job as a preschool teacher begins soon and she worries how she will pay for his full-time child care. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

California is raising its minimum wage in steps and all employers must pay $15 an hour by 2023. That puts pressure on child care providers to raise salaries, else their workers might be tempted to take a job at McDonald’s.

Linda Asato, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, said child care providers increasingly can’t find workers unless they raise wages or boost benefits, which makes care more expensive.

“If you want to see this industry continue, there has to be a way to lower costs to make it affordable,” Asato said.

The problem of rising child care costs may be alleviated some by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget for this year, which included hundreds of millions of dollars to improve access to care.

The budget earmarks $143.3 million in child care subsidies for 12,400 eligible children and $263 million for early learning and care facilities like centers and family child care homes, among other increased spending on child care.

Garcia said the money helps, but much remains to be done. “We are seeing some movement in the right direction,” he said, before adding, “We still see a huge gap.”

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Phillip Reese is a data specialist at The Sacramento Bee and an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State. His journalism has won the George Polk and Worth Bingham awards, and he was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.