Childcare Costs: Negative Impact on Women’s Health?

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SINCE THE RECESSION came and “went,” we’ve grown accustomed to hearing just how expensive subsistence has become. Housing, education, and other basic expenditures have increased faster than the rate of inflation, putting stress on individuals and families — Millennial households in particular. And now one must wonder, do childcare costs have a negative impact on women’s health?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Yes, of course.” A woman’s sense of well-being decreases as her wages rise, even as her happiness increases. It’s not difficult to imagine that part of that negative impact could be attributed to worries about her childcare arrangements.

According to Bloomberg, “[c]hildcare costs have surged at more than twice the pace of inflation since 1990.” That trend continued after the recession ended, and is coupled with increases in housing and tuition prices — both of which childcare costs have outpaced. Overall, the average cost of raising a child has risen by more than 970 percent since 1960.

Those rising childcare costs have taken their toll on women’s careers and families. In 1999, stay-at-home moms made up 23 percent of all mothers in the U.S. — an all-time low. By 2012, 29 percent of mothers had eschewed work to stay in the home. Pew Research Center notes that those numbers include women who stay at home due to health, economic, and educational factors, in addition to those who have made an elective decision not to work. The number of stay-at-home fathers is also on the rise.

Well-to-do families can work around the rising costs of living. One common practice is to hire young immigrant women as au pairs. These live-in caregivers put in 45-hour workweeks for less than $5 per hour, all because federal regulations allow their employers to deduct 40 percent of their income for room and board. It’s a predatory practice, to say the least, and au pairs’ low wages are somewhat in line with those of traditional childcare workers, who cannot afford daycare for their own children.

A wealthy couple who opposes hiring an au pair may also elect to give up one income, should they wish to avoid childcare costs. Having one partner drop out of the workforce in order to become a stay-at-home parent simply isn’t a choice for many households, however. Depending on other expenditures, families may be forced to sacrifice one income to reduce childcare costs, or place their children in daycare so that both parents may work, just to make ends meet. Additionally, low-income families spend disproportionately higher percentages of their monthly incomes on childcare.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account single-parent households. Only 24 percent of single mothers, and 14.9 percent of single fathers, are unemployed. Larger percentages — 30.4 and 18.8, respectively — live in poverty, which means that even custodial parents who are gainfully employed cannot bootstrap their way out of the lowest income brackets. Childcare costs, almost certainly, stand in their way.

Stress has a negative impact on nearly every system in the body. It can lead to chronic illness. Poverty creates a “toxic stress,” which may have far-reaching ramifications for children living in it, no matter how their families have chosen to manage childcare.

For women in particular, the outlook is even more bleak. From the American Psychological Association:

Women, who consistently report high levels of overall stress and unhealthy behaviors to manage stress, also report high levels of stress about money. What’s more, the gap between the percentage of those who appear to be doing well when it comes to managing their stress and the percentage of those who are not is growing.

Is it any wonder, then, that rich women live longer than the poor?

Now comes the real question: what do we do with this information? The cost of childcare is a growing problem that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have touched upon in speeches, but no one seems to have a plan to combat it.

That plan won’t be a simple one, when it arises. Like fixing our healthcare system, correcting the out-of-control surge in childcare costs will be a messy, contested, and controversial process — but a necessary one.

Until someone proposes a legislative fix, it’s important that we focus on the simple actions we can take to ensure that the problems facing women and their families are given their due attention. This includes pushing for labor rights, prioritizing women’s health issues, and not ignoring so-called “kitchen table politics.”

Now, going to town hall meetings and asking provoking questions is great. Protesting unfair conditions is even better. But the reality is that — between work, school, and family obligations — many folks simply don’t have the time.

So remember: you don’t have to be an activist to take action. You can work full time and still rock your vote on election day. Cast ballots for candidates who will be the best for women and families. If you don’t, who will?