Shortly after Crystal Springs started her new job at a large insurance company in Midtown Manhattan earlier this year, she realized that a much larger portion of her salary than expected was going directly toward child care for her 5-year-old daughter.
Ms. Springs had dreamed that the job, which allowed her and her husband to earn about $200,000 a year between them, would help provide a comfortable middle-class life for her family in Ozone Park, Queens. But as the bills mounted and her daughter’s days off from work became emergencies, she felt stuck. Upset, she quit the job she fought so hard for.
Around the same time, in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, Doris Irizarry was struggling to maintain the daycare she ran out of her home. Expenses increased each month and she said she only earned about $3 an hour for each of the six children who attended. This summer it finally closed after 25 years.
“This industry is going to die,” she said. “We cannot survive without parents, and parents cannot survive without us. We are a unit.”
In a notoriously stratified city experiencing its worst affordability crisis in decades, the skyrocketing cost of child care is one of the few issues that unites working families across geography, race and social class.
All but the wealthiest New Yorkers—even the upper middle class and especially mothers—struggle to afford care that allows them to keep their jobs. Average prices for almost every type of child care in New York City have skyrocketed since 2017, according to government surveys of providers. Montessori preschool programs can cost more than $4,000 a month in affluent areas, and working-class families stretch their budgets to pay at least $2,000 a month for day care.
And the workers who provide child care are suffering because of the high costs and are leaving the industry. Many earn just above minimum wage, making it difficult for them to afford to stay in New York City or pay for child care for their own children.
Interviews with more than three dozen parents, nannies, daycare providers and experts revealed a potentially devastating crisis for the future of New York City. In recent years, experts say, only astronomical housing costs have posed a greater barrier to working families than child care costs.
A family in New York City would have to earn more than $300,000 a year to meet the federal affordability standard — which recommends that child care account for no more than 7 percent of total household income — and only fund care for one young child would. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a typical urban family spends more than a quarter of their income paying for this care.
Although families and providers across the country face the same issues, few cities face affordability challenges as big as New York. In a city where most families need a second income, rising costs are straining a patchwork child care system that includes daycare centers in family homes, preschools and after-school centers in public school buildings and nannies who work in private homes.
“If people can’t go to work knowing your child is safe and not taking money out of your pocket to do it, then people can’t be here,” said Richard R. Buery Jr., the executive director the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity focused on fighting poverty in New York City. “If people can’t be here, they can’t pay taxes, and if people can’t be here, employers won’t be here.”
According to a recent study by Mr. Buery’s organization, more than half of New York families spend more on child care than they can afford, including both lower- and higher-income families.
The long-term consequences for the city’s health are only beginning to be felt, but it is clear that there are significant economic costs associated with them. According to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, it will cost the city $23 billion in 2022 if parents leave New York or cut work hours because of child care.
New York is losing families with young children. According to a recent analysis by New School researchers, between 2019 and the end of 2022, the number of families with children under five living in the city fell significantly. Data has shown that Black families in particular have been moving away in large numbers due to concerns about affordability. The number of public schools in the city has also declined sharply.
Brittany Dietz and her husband had no plans to leave when they began looking for daycare near their home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. To cut costs, they considered hiring a nanny or sharing with another family. Ms. Dietz, who works in advertising, was not impressed by the options, some of which would have amounted to a second rental. The cost of raising a child in New York helped her and her husband recently move to Cleveland, Ms. Dietz’s hometown.
There she found six daycare centers near her new home, all with space for her 18-month-old child, and chose one that cost about $50 a day. The move, she said, “opened up a world of possibilities” for her family.
“Nothing really makes you want to leave town until you have a child,” she said. “If we had made it, we probably would have stayed.”
Rising costs, shrinking supply
The cost of care has increased as supply has decreased.
The problems that have long plagued the industry – high staff turnover and labor shortages due to persistently low wages, as well as supply that falls short of parental demand – have only become more acute in the wake of the pandemic.
Some workers have moved to other low-wage industries that have been able to increase wages in recent years, and parents are feeling increasing cost pressure.
The city has lost at least a third of its child care workers since the pandemic began, and more than half of those who remain are eligible for child care subsidies for their own children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry’s average hourly rate in the city is just $16.78, and home workers earn just $10.61 per hour. A quarter of the city’s child care workers live in poverty, and the vast majority are women of color.
The large pay gap between child care workers and public school teachers has been a problem in the last two mayoral administrations.
Ms. Hochul added $500 million to the most recent state budget to provide bonuses for child care workers and boost recruiting efforts for centers, as well as $100 million to expand child care in areas with few options and has nearly $16 million New daycare centers on city and state university campuses are planned for the increase.
And Mr. Adams’ government has used federal child care funding to provide subsidized vouchers that significantly reduce the cost of care for about 22,000 low-income children, a small fraction of the city’s roughly half a million young children. Starting next month, families of four must earn less than $100,000 a year to qualify and prove they need child care because they work, have employment or attend school.
But experts say none of these efforts have solved the core problem of extremely low wages for child care workers. Beyond raising wages, the city and state could fully fund child care for 3-year-olds, ensure providers are paid on time, give them more training and make it easier for New Yorkers to open child care centers, they said. including in your own home, through tax credits and property tax reductions.
A burden for mothers
In interviews, several parents whose combined household income was $200,000 or more said that nannies or daycare came second to rent or mortgage in their monthly budget. Many said they weren’t sure if they would stay in the city if they had a second child, especially those who don’t have family nearby to help with babysitting.
A family making more than $400,000 began making tentative plans to leave the city after finding a daycare in their Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood that would pay over $4,700 for one of their children in the fall of 2024 It would cost a month if you visited them full time.
The strain is hitting particularly hard on mothers, many of whom said they had cut their hours, changed jobs to have more flexibility to work remotely, or stared in disbelief at budget spreadsheets that showed well over half—and in In some cases almost all of them could be seen. They use their monthly take-home salary to go to babysitters or daycare centers.
“I apologized for having to be a mother,” Ms. Springs, the Queens mother who is now building her notary business, said of her time at the insurance company.
Her first week at the job coincided with her daughter’s school vacation, and she sensed her boss’s increasing frustration as she repeatedly asked to work from home.
Some day care providers expressed great compassion for the parents they served and developed sliding scale programs for some families who had difficulty paying the cost of day care.
Silvia Reyes, a full-time nanny, earned $19 an hour working for a family when she started eight years ago. Since then, everything in her life has become more expensive, even as she has become the sole breadwinner for her mother, teenage brother and toddler. Her rent in Sunset Park, Brooklyn is about $2,000 a month and is expected to rise.
She asked the family she works for in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for a raise to $33 an hour, and they agreed. But even that rate, which is higher than what many other nannies receive, won’t cover the cost of full-time day care, added Ms. Reyes, who is a member of a childcare cooperative at the Carroll Gardens Association, a neighborhood advocacy organization.
She has given up her hopes of her son being able to socialize with other children during the day and now stays at home with his grandmother while Ms. Reyes is at work.
“I don’t have the luxury of sending my child to daycare if it would cost more than my rent,” she said. “If I don’t get paid well, I can’t afford to live here and I can’t afford to have my baby and my mother and my brother and I’ll have to get another job.”
Irineo Cabreros contributed reporting.
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.