Wait and worry: The painful process of finding a daycare in Charlotte, and paying for it

Wait and worry: The painful process of finding a daycare in Charlotte, and paying for it
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Dana Mackay’s first piece of advice for pregnant friends isn’t about childbirth, or breastfeeding, or how to deal with a howling infant at 2 a.m.

“I ask, ‘Are you on a waitlist yet?’” says Mackay, a mother of two who works at Bank of America. “The biggest struggle was finding daycare.”

When her older daughter, now 9, was born, Bank of America still provided a company-subsidized child care center for employees uptown. The bank shut down the center in 2012 as a cost-saving measure.

Mackay and her husband, Jason, who lived uptown at the time, scrambled to find another daycare center for their 2 ½-year-old daughter. They ended up enrolling her near his job, in Ballantyne. Their child started and ended each day with a 45-minute commute.

The couple decided to wait to have a second kid, in large part because they wanted to avoid having two daycare bills at the same time. When Mackay became pregnant about five years later, she and her husband found lengthy waitlists for daycare centers — some years long.


None could guarantee an opening when Mackay needed it, and all required payments of $50 to $100 simply to join the list.

They ended up hiring a nanny for months before they could get their daughter, now three, into a daycare center.

Now, at the end of every year, they receive a total tuition statement — for around $14,000. “It guts us,” Mackay says.

Mackay’s experience mirrors that of many Charlotte families. Thousands of new parents each year encounter the expense, anxiety, and unpredictability of trying to find someone to care for their children while they work.

For many, finding childcare unexpectedly becomes the hardest part of having a new baby. The hardships of labor and delivery, sleepless nights, dirty diapers, even the hospital bills — those are predictable.

But years-long waitlists, an extra hour or more of commuting every day, and monthly bills that can easily equal or surpass rent or a mortgage — well, those often blindside new parents.

“It’s been hellacious,” says Mercedes Destefano. Her daughter, now 9 months old, was born premature, so doctors advised Destefano to keep her daughter out of daycare until she turns 1. One daycare agreed to hold a spot for her. But Destefano didn’t have a good feeling about the place and she couldn’t find a part-time nanny, either. Now Destefano’s friend’s mother watches her child — a temporary arrangement — while she tries to find a permanent center her daughter can attend in a few months.

Before she gave birth, Destefano said she was focused on the challenges parenting would bring. The daycare search wasn’t her top priority, until it grew dire.

“I wasn’t thinking beyond that,” she said. “All of this has been more of a shock than I anticipated.”

Dana Mackay and daughter walk into daycare

I remember that shock. My wife and I both work full-time; when we first started looking for daycare, I naively assumed it would be easy to find.

We spent months touring facilities, and hundreds of dollars for spots on waitlists. Neither of us received any paid parental leave through our jobs, and waits would be a year or more — long after we had to report back to work. Religious-affiliated daycares gave preference to members, and at every place, younger siblings of children already enrolled would get preference over ours.

The tours blended together. One offered foreign language immersion for toddlers, one had visiting singers and storytellers, another taught three- and four-year-old kids to write “without tears.”

All cost at least as much as we paid in rent. Some were even more.

As we shuffled through one daycare after another, I eyed the other parents suspiciously, wondering who would get the golden ticket and whose kids would be left out. We paid for waitlists; we heard nothing. After the fifth or sixth list, the seeming futility of it all sunk in.

I started to panic, wondering if we could afford a nanny-share arrangement, or somehow shift our work schedules and patch together time watching the baby so we could keep our jobs. Could you bring an infant to a newsroom? They sleep a lot, right?

Daycare, it turns out, was a problem I had fundamentally misjudged: I had anticipated how difficult it would be to drop off our new baby, sometimes crying, at a daycare with people we barely knew, to spend the majority of his waking hours. What I didn’t anticipate was how hard it would be to find a facility that would even take him.

In the end, we were lucky. With a few weeks to spare, a childcare center contacted us to say they had an unexpected spot available. He’s been in daycare since he was three months old.

We love the teachers and staff at his daycare on Park Road, and we’ve seen him grow smarter and more social by the week there. But it’s still a shock to see the almost $15,000 bill at the end of the year — the equivalent of buying a new car, every year, for the first five years of your child’s life.

If we have two kids, daycare will become our biggest single expense.

Dana Mackay and daughter, daycare story

Dana Mackay and daughter, daycare story

When Dana Mackay and her husband had their first child, they had to drive 45 minutes to their daycare. They’ve since found one more centrally located for their second child.

The average fee for an infant at a five-star rated child care center is $13,884 a year in Mecklenburg County, or $1,157 a month. Four-star rated programs and toddler tuition are only slightly less, while hiring a nanny can cost far more.

Paying for daycare can be a stretch for middle class and even affluent parents. Some parents put off buying a house, saving for college, or putting away money for retirement, just to meet the monthly bill. For parents who make less money, finding affordable, safe, and convenient childcare can be impossible.

“Childcare is an underfunded system. We have not decided as a society to fund this system more,” says Janet Singerman, president of Childcare Resources, Inc. The private, nonprofit agency administers Mecklenburg County’s childcare subsidy program and works with parents and daycare providers in the county.

Childcare Resources was founded in 1982 as the county turned to the private market for childcare and transitioned away from county-run daycare centers. A shifting American culture had sharply increased the demand for childcare, as more women started working and the stereotypical 1950s household with a smiling, stay-at-home mom tending the kids while dad works faded into the past. Women were no longer the default, unpaid source of childcare for working men.

“Across the economic spectrum, childcare was becoming more of an issue,” said Singerman, who joined the agency in 1997.

Charlotte isn’t unusual. Daycare costs more than in-state tuition and fees for public universities in 30 states and the District of Columbia, according to the advocacy group, Child Care Aware of America.

“The cost of childcare, up to five years of age, will cost more than tuition and fees at UNC Charlotte or Chapel Hill,” Singerman says. “What more can I say than that?”

Daycare costs chart

The vast majority of licensed daycare centers in Mecklenburg — 78 percent — are four- or five-star rated. About 9 percent are three-star rated, and the rest operate as faith-exempt centers or are on temporary or provisional licenses. Less than 4 percent are one-star programs, which still meet minimum state standards. Programs can get more stars through steps such as lowering teacher-child ratios or increasing staff education levels.

Singerman says that a longtime recommendation from the Bureau of Labor & Statistics is that families should spend no more than 10 percent of their annual income on childcare.

The median household income in Mecklenburg County is about $61,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census. That would put officially “affordable” daycare for the median family at about $6,200 a year — or less than half the current average five-star rate.

Put another way: A family would have to make $138,840 to meet that 10 percent standard and keep their kids in a five-star facility. A three-star facility in Mecklenburg averages $10,224 per year — cheaper, but you’d still have to make six figures.

“The math doesn’t look too great,” Singerman says.

Dana Mackay and daughter, daycare story

In a 2019 report, the Center for American Progress found that half of American families with children had experienced difficulty finding childcare.

“Today, many families with young children must make a choice between spending a significant portion of their income on childcare, finding a cheaper, but potentially lower-quality care option, or leaving the workforce altogether to become a full-time caregiver,” the group said. Families that can’t afford more expensive options often turn to “informal” arrangements, such as leaving a child with a friend or relative, or at an unlicensed home daycare.

One reason it’s so hard to find quality childcare at an affordable price: The cost of care has far outstripped most other expenses.

From 1993 to 2018, the inflation-adjusted cost of childcare grew 41 percent in the U.S., according to a January report from Freddie Mac. In fact, childcare costs rose faster than any other category of household expenses (food, shelter, medical bills), with the exception of education.

It’s even become a political issue.

President Trump in December called the cost of childcare “devastating,” and said that there should be more options (including home and faith-based care) for families to choose from, with fewer burdensome regulations.

On the 2020 campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidates have been pitching plans to help families deal with the crushing costs, and the question came up in January’s debate.

Senator Elizabeth Warren proposes universal childcare for preschool age children, funded by a tax on the ultra-rich. She has frequently praised her Aunt Bee, saying without stepping in and watching Warren’s young child she likely would have left the workforce and not become a law professor and senator.

Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed a similar plan.

“We should not be giving tax breaks to billionaires and telling moms and dads in this country we cannot afford universal childcare,” Sanders recently tweeted. Other candidates have proposed extending paid parental leave, offering more tax credits, or making more families eligible for subsidies.

Local funding increased sharply last year, when Mecklenburg County commissioners voted to add $20 million to childcare subsidies for low-income families. The additional funding has allowed 1,134 more children ages zero to five to receive county subsidies for childcare, the county says.

Earlier this month, North Carolina received federal grants totaling $56 million for early childhood education. The money will help fund teacher development and expand access for infants and toddlers.

But a more comprehensive national program of any sort is still years away. For now, we’re stuck in what Singerman called an “economic conundrum”: Families can’t afford to pay more, while, on the flip side, daycare providers can’t afford to make any less.

Daycare workers and operators aren’t getting rich. The median wage for a daycare teacher in the five-county region including Mecklenburg is $11 an hour. The median wage for a center operator isn’t much higher, at $16.83 an hour.

One reason for low caregiver wages is the fact that daycare isn’t scalable like other businesses. To meet licensing requirements, a four- or five-star daycare center must have a one-to-four ratio of infants to teachers.

So, center operators can’t simply increase their revenues by enrolling more children, because every fourth added child means hiring another teacher.

At the average of $13,884 per child, a teacher at a five-star daycare accounts for about $56,000 in revenue each year.

“It’s a difficult economic equation, both for families and program operators,” Singerman said.

Dana Mackay and daughter, daycare story

Dana Mackay’s family spends about $14,000 a year on daycare, which is right at the average cost for Charlotte.

Even for families who can afford daycare, there’s another huge source of anxiety: Getting into a center before maternity and paternity leave run out.

“As soon as you get pregnant, you need to get on a waitlist,” Mackay says. “I almost feel like before you get in a relationship, you have to ask, ‘Do you want kids? Because we need to get on waitlists now.’”

The timing is tricky. If a slot comes open too early, you might be forced to choose whether you want to pay thousands of dollars in tuition to hold it, or give the slot up and hope for the best somewhere else. Get in too late, and you’ll be searching for stopgap childcare arrangements for months, with no guarantee of when you’ll be able to get your child into a daycare.

Leigh Aberle, with more than a decade of nanny experience, founded and runs Charlotte-based Family First Household Staffing Agency. Families in desperate need of a temporary nanny are a big source of her business.

“I have a family still on a waitlist for April. It could be longer than that,” she said. But hiring a nanny isn’t cheap. Wages cost anywhere from $16 to $25 an hour, and if you spend more than $2,000, you’re legally obligated to provide a W-2 and pay applicable taxes, adding another layer of legal and accounting hassle.

“If you have a temporary nanny for a few months, you’re going to spend more than $2,000,” said Aberle.

Compared to other cities she works in, Charlotte is “notorious” for long waitlists, Aberle says. She theorized one reason: Charlotte’s highly mobile population of young people who come for jobs.

“Charlotte is a very transient city,” she says. “Lots of people here don’t have family.”

Christina Harris moved from Virginia Beach four years ago with her two school-aged children. She stayed home with them, but now, with a third child on the way, Harris plans to keep working. A supply chain management professional, she assumed she would be able to find daycare relatively quickly. Her due date isn’t until March.

Then, she ran into the waitlist buzzsaw.

“At first, I was panicking,” Harris says. “These waitlists are crazy.” She was told she’d have to wait for maybe a year. She started wondering whether she would even be able to keep working once her daughter was born.

“I don’t have a choice,” Harris said. “I don’t have family here. She has to go somewhere.”

Singerman said that despite the waitlists at many facilities, Mecklenburg has enough daycare spaces: 17,114 slots for children from birth through 3, and just over 13,200 children enrolled. That means about three quarters of daycare slots for the youngest children are filled, and a quarter are open.

“We tend to have enough slots. Supply is not the predominant concern,” Singer said.

The long waitlists many parents encounter may simply be the result of geography. Center City is Charlotte’s biggest employment center, with 135,000 workers in uptown and South End. That means facilities in and around uptown are especially crowded, as parents try to find a daycare that won’t add too much time to their commutes.

For Dana Mackay, the finish line is in sight. Her youngest daughter is 3; she’ll be in school within the next couple of years. But as Mackay looks back at the money her family has spent on childcare, she thinks about what they could have done with that cash instead.

Saved for retirement. Renovated the house. Invested and earned a great return. Put more away for the children’s college.

Or, maybe splurged on something.

“My thought,” Mackay says, “is we could have five little sedans out front.”

Dana Mackay and daughter, daycare story

Ely Portillo is assistant director at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. A former Charlotte Observer reporter, he’s been a journalist in Charlotte for more than 10 years. 

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