One New Hampshire Mom’s Childcare Story

Below is an excerpt from Jumping Through Hoops and Set Up to Fail, a report on the high cost of child care by the Center for American Progress.

Sarah Lynn Sadowski, a mother of four in Concord, New Hampshire, has a master’s degree in international development. Her husband Jon, a public school special education teacher, also has a master’s degree and is studying to become a school administrator. If they both worked full time, they could make well over six figures, save for college and retirement, and enjoy a comfortable life. But they can’t, because the solidly middle-class Sadowskis have never quite been able to make their child care arrangements work out.

New Hampshire has one of the highest costs of living in the country: Center-based care for an infant costs almost $12,000 per year, on average; the average cost of care for a 4-year-old, at $9,500, is only slightly less. During the 2014-15 school year, only about half of the state’s school districts offered full-time kindergarten programs, and there is no state-funded pre-K. Because she never had paid maternity leave, Sarah needed child care fast after each of her pregnancies. Finding licensed care for infants, however, was close to impossible. She put her children on waitlists and ended up taking three of her four children to work with her when they were infants. New Hampshire is one of only five states that does not provide state-funded pre-K. The others are Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

The Sadowskis’ eldest child has cerebral palsy and epilepsy resulting from a birth injury. With her, the Sadowskis have learned the hard way that whatever child care difficulties parents normally encounter increase exponentially when you factor in a child with special needs. The usual work-family policy gaps become even wider too. Their daughter had, for example, to grow used to a constantly shifting crew of home health care aids: Their low pay, lack of paid sick days, and lack of access to good child care of their own creates enormous turnover among the people who work most closely with her.

Because their daughter has a depressed immune system, the Sadowskis have to keep their other children home from day care when other parents, lacking paid time off, send their children in sick. Last winter, a younger daughter stayed home at least one day per week for just this reason; the Sadowskis were required to pay for her time in care nonetheless.

The frustration was such that, for three years, they tried opting out of child care entirely. Jon became a stay-at-home dad, and Sarah took a policy job working 60 hours per week. But she found the long hours were “not tenable” given the demands of four kids and a child’s special needs. Sarah has left that job and now works part time, while Jon works two jobs to make ends meet.

Child care still eats up fully one-third of their monthly income. Another half goes to car payments and student loans. The crunch is so bad that the couple is thinking of picking up and moving across the state line to Massachusetts, where they believe wages are higher and family support policies will be stronger.

“I’m 37. Jon is 38,” Sarah reflected in late December. “Both of us are at the peak of our earning potential, and here I am working 15 hours a week, not saving for retirement.” She alternates between feeling angry about the policy gaps that make life so hard for even middle-class families such as her own and simply blaming herself. “I struggle with this sense of personal responsibility,” she said. Sadowski’s sense of shame at being a highly educated person who can barely make ends meet is deeply painful, yet she knows she’s not alone in feeling the squeeze.

According to the Center for American Progress, the median married couple with two children saw no income growth between 2000 and 2012. In that same period, childcare costs grew 37 percent, and the aggregate cost of staples of middle-class security—such as child care, housing, health care, and putting aside savings for retirement and college—increased $10,600.

“This needs to be talked about,” she said.

Read the entire report, including policy recommendations, at www.americanprogress.org.