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OPINION

The financial fragility of single parents who need child care

If women fall out of the workforce because they can’t afford child care, few of them have enough of a financial cushion to get back on track.

Teacher Dina Gomes held Rory as she rocked Railey (bottom) in the infant room at the Nurtury Center in Roxbury, Feb. 7. In Massachusetts, child care for the youngest residents is more difficult to find and harder to afford than most other places in the country.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It almost cost me $20 an hour to write this opinion piece. As a single mom of a toddler, that’s what I pay for babysitting if I need help on weekends or outside of the weekday hours of day care. And while I was lucky enough to have family help for a few hours, many single parents don’t have that option or the $20 an hour. And when single parents do find child care, the costs, relative to income, can be staggering in comparison to what coupled parents pay.

A recent report by Child Care Aware of America found that the average single parent allots roughly 35 percent of their income to child care compared to married couples, who allot just 10 percent of their income. “If child care is already a wasteland and parents are out on a tightrope, then solo parents are out on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon,” Elliott Haspel, author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It,” told me. “Child care is already unaffordable, but when you have two incomes — or the potential for two incomes — it makes the equation a little more viable,” Haspel said.

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He’s right.

Massachusetts has some of the highest child care costs in the country, with parents in some counties paying as much as $26,000 a year for infant center-based child care. A US News analysis of the Child Care Aware report found that in 2020 child care costs in Massachusetts represented 51.4 percent of a single parent’s income compared to 12 percent of a married couple’s income. New York, where I live, doesn’t fall far behind. In 2022 I spent more than $19,000 on child care-related expenses including day care ($1,375 a month) and babysitters ($20 an hour).

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The wealth gap between single parents and married ones will have long-term implications for single parents in the workforce, especially women, and our ability to be financially secure enough to care for our children.

Before the finger pointing of “why have children if you can’t afford them” begins, let’s set a baseline. There are many ways people become single parents, including the death of a spouse, a divorce or breakup, a surprise pregnancy, a deliberate pregnancy through IVF or other fertility assistance, and adoption. (With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, expect to see more women become parents regardless of whether they want to or not.)

Nearly 24 million children in the United States live in a single-parent family — the highest rate in the world — making single-parent families a huge part of the American family structure. Yet 30 percent of single-family households live below the poverty line, compared to just 6 percent of married families.

When I chose to have my son, I had a generous salary and a high-profile job as a journalist. I never anticipated that he would be born six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began in New York or that I would leave my job after suffering from the severe burnout of doing both of those things alone. But after working from a coat closet during a punishing news cycle that ran from the murder of George Floyd to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on the US Capitol, I was done. I was also spending close to $2,700 a month on a nanny while I worked.

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Here’s the thing: Single parents don’t just need to work, many of them, including me, want to work. But we can’t do that effectively if child care costs represent half or more of our take-home pay or if we have jobs that don’t allow us the flexibility we need to care for our children. Work is not just a necessary break from parenting but something that allows us to contribute to society in a meaningful way beyond being a parent. We need cost effective child care to be able to be our full selves for the benefit of our own personal development and that of our children.

Despite having a master’s degree and a long professional background, the anxiety of not being “from money” and not finding a high-paying job stays with me. And I have good reason for concern.

A 2022 report from the St. Louis Federal Reserve found that the pandemic highlighted the “financial fragility” of single mothers who experienced high levels of unemployment, workforce attrition, and a lack of affordable and available child care. Close to 80 percent of single-parent homes are led by single mothers. If women fall out of the workforce because they can’t afford child care, few of them have enough of a financial cushion to get back on track.

This affects working-class, lower-income, and even many middle-income, white single parents, but it is an especially significant problem for single parents of color. Black and Latina women were more likely to be single mothers to children younger than 17, but white single mothers still had more wealth than their Black and Latina counterparts. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, white single mothers had $46,000 in median wealth in 2019 compared to single Black and Hispanic/Latina mothers who had about $4,000. (It is important to note that wealth is not the same as income. Wealth is the value of a person’s assets, including a person’s home. White Americans have historically had 10 times the wealth of Blacks and Latinos.)

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President Biden tried, and failed, to pass the Build Back Better Act that would have allotted $400 billion to improve child care across the United States. The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed instead, effectively eliminated all funding for improved child care. In his most recent budget proposal, the president is trying once again to allocate billions of dollars in funding for the expansion of child care, tax credits, and early education programs like Head Start.

State and local municipalities can use this as an opportunity to step up their own commitments to increase the affordability and accessibility of child care. Governor Maura Healey of Massachusetts has proposed a tax credit that would offer families $600 for dependents, including children under 13, and plans to use more than $500 million from the “millionaires tax” to fund child care and other initiatives. The governor has also indicated support for a bill proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey that would ensure parents pay no more than 7 percent of their income toward child care.

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A recent proposal by New York Governor Kathy Hochul would include expanded child care subsidies, a streamlined child care applications system, and the creation of child care centers in underserved communities. Whether any of these measures will garner the bipartisan support needed to pass remains to be seen.

And it’s not just the public sector that needs to stand up. Private sector employers can play a role, however temporary, to ensure that parents, especially single parents, feel supported in the need for child care. Short of having on-site day care or paying for backup child care, private employers can offer single parents workplace flexibility and competitive salaries.

Companies and elected officials must understand that many single parents may not have a village to support them, or access to a partner’s medical insurance plan, or 30 percent to 50 percent of their income to spend on child care. Single parents like me need safe spaces for our children to thrive while we contribute to the economy. We need the public and private sector to come together to create meaningful support so we can all do our best.

Tanzina Vega is an editor at Charter.