If Only Child Care Costs Were Transparent, Searches Would Be Simpler and Easier - Early Learning Nation

If Only Child Care Costs Were Transparent, Searches Would Be Simpler and Easier

Why Aren’t They?

In the midst of my search for a new child care provider for my one-year-old, I’ve braced myself for the hard numbers. In the United States, the cost of child care has soared to record-breaking highs, rising at more than twice the rate of inflation overall. One study found that the average cost of child care for two children now exceeds the cost of housing in all fifty states. For infant care, which we’ll need, the prices are even higher than for toddlers and older kids, since they require more attention and labor. Families that use more than 20 hours of child care per month are paying on average $1,100 per child.

It’s been a years-long search for the right care provider, starting from the earliest days of my pregnancy. We talked to neighbors and friends about their child care experiences. There have been never-ending online searches, writing down the names of centers we see driving around town so we can look up reviews about them later, noting the names and numbers of providers that parents we meet at the library or the splash pad have liked to find out if they have openings.

I expected “sticker shock.” What I didn’t expect is needing to go on a virtual scavenger hunt to find even basic pricing information from the providers of interest.

Where my family lives in Southern Utah, there are just four child care providers listed on Winnie, a free database for parents to search for care providers in their area, with pages providers can claim and update with details about their offerings at no cost (providers can pay to upgrade their pages to contain more features and to show up higher in search results). Not one of the providers in my town lists the cost of care on their Winnie page. In St. George, the larger city next to us, 26 providers appear in a search, with just 2 listing their prices. One provider’s Winnie page lists its price as a huge range, between $450-$750 a month, which at least helped me to get some ballpark sense of cost. Unfortunately, in lieu of a price or a price range, most providers’ pages say simply, “Contact this provider to inquire about prices and availability.” My wife and I have emailed providers and left voicemails. Usually, we don’t hear back at all. It’s hard to make an educated decision when you don’t have all the information in front of you.

“I realized that what frustrates me most about our child care search isn’t just the lack of numbers. It was the way this whole experience seemed to disregard the humanity of everyone involved. We’ve been forced to play a shell game in a process that is ultimately about the care and education of our baby, a subject about which we could not feel more tender and vulnerable.” –Haley Swenson

Until you’ve been in a child care search, you may not fully appreciate just how frustrating it is to not readily find price tags for what will be one of your family’s greatest expenses and most important decisions. One way to test Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s claim in 2021 that child care is a broken market is to ask how you would react if something common in the child care sector were to take place in another equally vital industry, say in the search for a new vehicle.

Imagine walking around a car lot, looking for your family’s next sedan. Buying a car is critical to your ability to get to work, to earn a living, to your family’s livelihood. You need a car. You spot a couple options that look like the right size and style for your family. But instead of seeing a price painted on the windshield, you see the phrase: “Inquire for pricing.” You go online to the automakers’ website and read a full sales pitch about the make and model of the cars of interest. They’re perfect. But can you afford it? Who knows? Finally, you contact the car dealership. A few days pass before you hear back from a sales person who says they’ll walk you through the price of the cars when you come for a tour and test drive. After all this effort and taking time out of your schedule to visit the dealership, you finally see the price tag, only to realize you cannot afford the car you liked so much. This is often the experience of families searching for child care in America, where public funding is scant.

One of the many problems with child care as a private market is that providers, especially the largest ones with the most funding behind them, have far more power than the families they’re serving. Demand for high quality early care and education far exceeds supply, which means families are competing for much-coveted openings. For many families, child care is a necessity, critical to their ability to earn a living; and good, reliable child care is such a rarity that most families will feel forced to pay whatever the cost. But some families simply cannot, and there are increasingly stark divides between higher income families who can access paid child care services, and lower income families who cannot. A recent survey by the Federal Reserve found that “among parents with younger children, those with higher income were about twice as likely as those with lower or middle income to use 20 or more hours of paid child care per week.” The lack of price transparency in the sector is a sign of a much larger problem with a profit-driven child care system and the way it ends up treating parents and caregivers alike.

Winnie’s CEO Sara Mauskopf says it’s unfortunate that many providers they encourage to update their pages are reluctant to list their prices directly, worrying that the “sticker shock” a parent feels when they see the cost initially will stop them from considering the provider. Mauskopf says the theory is that if you can get a parent in the door of the center and give them the opportunity to “fall in love” with what they see, they’ll be more likely to enroll their child, even if the price is high.

But Mauskopf says that’s a myth. “When it comes to child care,” said Mauskopf, “You know what you can afford and you can’t really stretch much beyond your range. If some place costs twice as much as your range, there’s not really anything you can do to afford it. So, I think that is just the wrong philosophy.”

In fact, internal data analyzed by Winnie suggests that providers who list their price on their Winnie page have enrollment rates 33 percent higher than those who do not, likely because people are more likely to pursue the provider once they know they can afford it. Mauskopf also says this hide-and-seek pricing model could only ever make sense for big providers, those with staff members who can give tours to prospective parents during the day, and field phone calls from people just inquiring about prices.

KinderCare, for instance, is the largest child care provider in the United States. Its website is bright, inviting and laden with information on their approach to safety, care and education. But nowhere on the website are specific numbers about costs. Even on the individual web pages for specific KinderCare locations, like this one in Salt Lake City, which includes a button that says, “Tuition and Openings,” no actual tuition information appears.

I reached out to both KinderCare and another large provider, Bright Horizons, to ask why they don’t include pricing information on their websites, but they did not respond.

Mauskopf said not all providers approach pricing this way. Home-based providers or small center-based providers are less inclined to see the lack of price transparency as a strategic, marketing decision. They already have staff wearing multiple hats, acting both as teachers and as administrators. Needing to also act as tour guides and sales people to families who may not even have the budget to cover tuition is wasted time they can’t afford. For them, the bigger problem with listing their prices may be the burden of updating a website with their costs or even having a web presence to begin with. For most child care providers, whose labor and infrastructure costs alone are incredibly high, margins are too tight to afford a robust marketing team, or even a team that can stay in contact with the host of child care databases like Winnie about their prices and openings.

Dana Levin-Robinson started her company UpFront in 2020 to tackle this problem, as well as a host of problems with transparency in child care. She says private databases like Winnie are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting up-to-date pricing information from providers, simply because it’s hard to get their time and attention when they have so much else going on. She says individual consumers and private companies are both unlikely to have the leverage they need to get providers to share their data and to update it regularly.

Unlike private websites, resource and referral agencies have leverage. Government-operated resource and referral networks contract with UpFront to create user-friendly databases with search filters parents can use to find child care that truly works for them. They not only play a role in licensing providers, but they also connect providers in their networks with publicly funded resources and support. Additionally, Levin-Robinson has found, reaching out with clear, simple asks to providers makes the work of updating information much easier. Instead of emailing a contact with a list of required data fields, Levin-Robinson says, they’ve had more success by being very specific and very simple, asking something like, “You previously listed your price for infant care as $300 a week. Is that the same or has it changed?”

One of UpFront’s clients, the Maryland Family Network, has pricing data for 4,567 out of 6,256 providers they work with, an astonishing 72 percent of providers. Families looking for child care can search for providers in their area using dozens of different search fields and filters, to almost learn instantly who would and would not work for their family and their budget.

Ultimately, Levin-Robinson suggests, these resource and referral agencies would have even more leverage if transparency about pricing and regular updates a requirement for state licensing and renewal were, something state legislatures could consider enacting. I’d be relieved if my state had information as robust as Maryland’s available with the click of my computer mouse. But ultimately, price transparency is the tip of the iceberg in the ways the child care market has failed American families.

Last week, I sent a desperate, terse website inquiry to a center ten minutes from my house that didn’t list their price online but did offer me the chance to fill out an application that asked me to agree to a particular pay schedule before I even knew if I could afford it. “I’m wondering the price of care for a 15-month-old to see if it’s in my budget. Could you send your cost information?” I wrote. To my surprise Karen, the center’s director, emailed me back within 24 hours. She answered my question directly—$80 a day or $260 a week—and said they had an opening three days a week for a one-year-old. If the price worked for my family—it was steep but no worse than we’d been anticipating—she said she’d be happy to give us a tour and answer any other questions we had.

A few days later, we went for our tour and fell in love with the child care center, something I’d begun to think would never happen. It was the facilities, the teachers, the way even the director and assistant director knew the names of every kid in their care, the way they spoke to us and took our questions seriously, and the environment of play and learning we saw as we poked our heads into each classroom.

I realized that what frustrates me most about our child care search isn’t just the lack of numbers. It was the way this whole experience seemed to disregard the humanity of everyone involved. We’ve been forced to play a shell game in a process that is ultimately about the care and education of our baby, a subject about which we could not feel more tender and vulnerable. Meanwhile, caregivers are attempting to give their time and attention to our children, while also being asked to manage websites, tight budgets, grants and licensing, facilities maintenance and marketing strategies.

If a country truly invested in the care and education of young children—rather than leaving it to the private market and overstretched, overworked parents—child care pricing would not only be transparent, but simple and affordable. It would be abundant and easy to access in every neighborhood. Perhaps I could have saved myself the dozens and dozens of hours I have spent looking for child care since before my son was even born. With publicly funded child care, we could invest what amounts to a huge portion of our income we currently spend on child care in our son’s future. Maybe my stress levels would be lower and my health and happiness higher if figuring all this out and making it work weren’t constantly on my mind.

Maybe the teachers and caregivers who have dedicated their lives to this work would be paid what they deserve for caring for our communities’ youngest human beings and the parents who have entrusted them with their lives and development. Maybe we could all focus, first and foremost, on people.

Haley Swenson is a research and reporting fellow for Better Life Lab, the intersectional gender equality and work program at the non-partisan think tank New America. She is also editor and co-founder of Work Life Everything.

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us