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High cost of day care keeps Boston women out of workforce, survey finds

Two-year-old Logan enjoyed his naptime at Kids & Company in the Seaport. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Many parents in Boston — especially mothers of very young children — are unable to work because they can’t find affordable, quality child care, according to a new survey of city residents to be released Thursday.

The survey, conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, found that more than one-quarter of stay-at-home parents, the vast majority of them women, couldn’t work because they lacked day care. Nearly 60 percent of those parents cited cost as the biggest obstacle. Parents of children under 2 had the hardest time finding available slots.

“Child care is a disaster even for the ‘middle class,’ ” one East Boston resident wrote in the comments section. “It’s unsustainable. We have no savings, no credit, and all my friends are in the same situation.”


In a modest first step to address the child care gap, the Walsh administration is planning to announce on Thursday a pilot program to assist home-based child-care providers in Boston.

“One part of the solution is to support the workforce, to help them run stable businesses to increase the supply,” said Tania Del Rio, executive director of the Office of Women’s Advancement.

Massachusetts is the second most expensive state for child care in the United States, with families paying nearly $21,000 annually for just one infant in a day-care center, according to a 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute.

Home-based care — small day-care businesses that are run out of private homes — usually charge less than day-care centers. But despite high demand, many are struggling to stay afloat. Del Rio said high housing costs for these home-based providers are driving many out.

Boston has lost more than half of its home-based family child-care businesses since 2010, totaling an estimated 400 closings according to city and state data. Meanwhile, the population of children under 5 has increased steadily.


Del Rio noted that many of the challenges of child care in the city disproportionately affect women, both the providers who run most of the small operations, and the parents who are forced to stay home for lack of child care. The owners of home-based care businesses in Boston are almost exclusively female (90 percent), according to city records.

Del Rio said the pilot will offer three types of grants: $2,000 awards to start-up businesses; $1,000 to $3,000 to existing providers to help shore up their operations; and one grant of up to $10,000 to a business that collaborates with other providers to reduce costs through bulk purchases of supplies or shared accounting and bookkeeping.

The city plans to hold workshops in the next month to help providers understand the application process. The application deadline will be Nov. 15.

The child care survey, intended to help shape policy around child care, was inserted into the city’s annual census. Some 2,600 residents with children under age 5 responded — about 9 percent of city residents with children in that age group.

The survey results are not representative of Boston’s general population because of a disproportionately high number of responses from Jamaica Plain, Charlestown, Roslindale, and the South End, and a disproportionately low number from Dorchester and Roxbury.

The city said it has since resolved some kinks in its survey process and plans to ask more questions about child care in its 2020 census.


Child advocates said the results of the initial survey help paint a clearer picture of how the sky-high price of day care affects everyday life.

“Some of the respondents talked about a couple days using a relative for care and then a couple days with the mom or dad staying home — very complicated solutions families are coming up with to deal with the fact that it’s unavailable or unaffordable,” said Kristin McSwain, executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda, an organization that creates public-private educational partnerships.

Day-care hours are also a problem for many families. More than 20 percent of parents indicated that the hours of operation at child care facilities did not mesh with their work schedules.

“There is a lot we knew anecdotally,” McSwain said, “but this is the first step in giving us some data points.”

Matt LiPuma, executive director of the Family Nurturing Center, a Dorchester organization that runs play groups and other services for low-income families, said the city’s survey underscored what his group sees every day — parents who want to work, but can’t find child care that they can afford.

“They’re always looking for day care and they can’t get into Head Start or an affordable slot, [so] they will bring their kids to play group as an alternative so their kids are getting some socialization and they’re meeting other families,” LiPuma said.

McSwain’s organization plans to release a study in early November that builds on the city’s findings by incorporating additional data about child care availability. She said the goal is to develop partnerships between early education centers and corporations to increase supply and quality.


Though the city’s $70,000 investment in pilot programs for home-based child care is a modest one, McSwain said it makes sense to start small.

“These are very small businesses, so too much for any one may be more than they can manage,” she said. “You want to see the results before you do a huge investment and tailor what you learn across a larger system.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.