For years now, the District has been among the most expensive places in the country to seek child care. For many families, “the annual cost of child care is equivalent to tuition for public, four-year universities” — around $35,000 a year.

In Montgomery County, parents with two small children can expect to pay about $28,000 a year on childcare. In Arlington, that number jumps to almost $34,000 a year.

Child Care Aware of America estimates that the national average childcare cost is roughly $9,000 per child, per year.

The issue is tied in large part to other facets of affordability in the DMV. Rent, insurance, and other operating costs are higher in urban areas by default. The standards for accreditation are high here, which means affordable options can be limited. And because of the notorious income disparities in this region, the burden of expensive child care is borne disproportionately by low- and middle-income families — and by single parents.

To kick off WAMU’s yearlong Affordability Project, Kojo is joined by WAMU reporter Eliza Berkon and two experts who know what to look for in affordable childcare — and what alternatives parents are turning to.

Produced by Maura Currie


  • Eliza Berkon Affordability Digital Producer, WAMU; @eberkon
  • Steve Rohde Deputy Director, Resource & Referral Services for Maryland Family Network
  • Kimberly Perry Executive Director, DC Action for Children
  • Gabe Bullard Senior Editor and Affordability Project Manager, WAMU; @gbullard


  • 12:00:09

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. We're spending the whole hour today talking about the D.C. region's affordability crisis. Later in the hour we'll tackle two very different ends of the affordability spectrum, childcare and retirement, but first we'd like to tell you why we're spending today talking about affordability. It's part of a new project WAMU is launching this week and keeping up with for all of 2020. For more we're joined by Gabe Bullard. He is a Senior Editor in WAMU's newsroom and the Project Manager of our new Affordability Desk. Gabe, good to see you.

  • 12:00:48

    GABE BULLARDGood to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:00:49

    NNAMDII know you had to come a long way to get here, but thank you for coming.

  • 12:00:52

    BULLARDOh, yeah, a treacherous walk.

  • 12:00:53

    NNAMDIAll the way from the newsroom to here. Gabe, in broad strokes what is the Affordability Desk?

  • 12:00:58

    BULLARDSo it's a yearlong project that we're doing that looks into the real cost of living in the D.C. area. We know it's expensive and we know that it affects everyone no matter how much you make, no matter where in the region you live, somehow this high cost living is affecting you. And when we see a statistic that comes out like the amount of money over $100,000 to live comfortably as a family of four we want to dive into what's actually behind that. What does that mean? What does living comfortably mean? How many people are actually earning this? What contributes to that cost?

  • 12:01:27

    BULLARDSo we have our team reporters, Sasha-Ann Simons, Ally Schweitzer, Eliza Berkon and we're looking across the range of incomes across the region to find out how it got to be so expensive, the different ways that that manifests and then what can be done about it.

  • 12:01:41

    NNAMDIOver the course of the year what can we expect to see and hear from the team working on the Affordability Desk?

  • 12:01:47

    BULLARDSo we'll have stories online and on air of across all these different topics, like I had mentioned there, but then also we plan to have events out in the community. We want to -- you know, we're not just here out speaking and filing. We want to be out in the community. We want to hear from people. We'll be hosting different events. We want to experiment with the types of stories we're telling. And also we want to start diving into solutions, into what has been tried here, what has been tried elsewhere, what has worked elsewhere.

  • 12:02:14

    BULLARDSasha had a story of a few weeks ago looking at this discount for low income New Yorkers that they get on transit. And would that happen here? Could that happen here? What would that even look like if we tried it in the D.C. region with Metro? So we want to start looking into things like that as well. And we want to make sure that we're answering the questions that our audience has that listeners have.

  • 12:02:36

    NNAMDII was about to ask. How can listeners get involved with this initiative?

  • 12:02:39

    BULLARDOh yeah. So you can go to and that's where we have -- there's a form or a button that says ask a question. You can send us your idea. Send us your question. If you want to give us a call the number is 202-885-7222 and we are listening to those as well. And we just want to hear from you. Find us on Tweeter. Find us wherever you can. Go online. Give us a call. We are listening. We want to hear. We want to get started on answering some of those questions.

  • 12:03:06

    NNAMDIWAMU's Affordability Project launched today. Gabe Bullard is a Senior Editor in the newsroom here and the Project Manager of the new Affordability Desk. Gabe, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:03:16

    BULLARDThanks for having me.

  • 12:03:19

    NNAMDIIt's not uncommon in this region for families to spend about a fifth of their income on childcare. As with many other parts of DMV life the cost of childcare here are among the highest in the country. And that decision of where to send your children during the day or whether you send them anywhere doesn't just affect pocketbooks. Careers especially for moms and single parents can be on the line. And the cost of childcare can even be a deterrent from growing your family. Joining me in studio is Eliza Berkon. She's a Reporter covering affordability for WAMU. Eliza, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:52

    ELIZA BERKONThanks for having me.

  • 12:03:53

    NNAMDISteve Rohde is the Deputy Director of Resource & Referral Services for the Maryland Family Network. Steve Rohde, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:01

    STEVE ROHDEGood afternoon. Thank you.

  • 12:04:02

    NNAMDIAnd Kimberly Perry is the Executive Director of DC Action for Kids. Kimberly Perry, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:09

    KIMBERLY PERRYThanks so much, Kojo. Glad to be here.

  • 12:04:10

    NNAMDIYou can hear Eliza's reporting on childcare costs this evening on all things considered. And you can find more at As I said, if you'd like to join this conversation give us a call. Eliza, you've been talking with both parents and experts about childcare. Let's start with the basics. When we say childcare, what are we talking about daycare, preschool, babysitter?

  • 12:04:31

    BERKONSo we're talking about the cost of care for an infant or a toddler while a parent is at work. So that could be home daycare, center based programs, nannies, au pairs, even grandparents. But, you know, all the options on average are expensive.

  • 12:04:48

    NNAMDISo just how big a financial burden is this for the average household in our region?

  • 12:04:54

    BERKONIt's a pretty big one. In the District the annual average cost for center based care rather than at-home daycare is close to $24,000 a year and that's just for one child. So you add a toddler to that at $19,000 a year and you're looking at $43,000 a year, which is a number that competes with or even exceeds the take home pay for a lot of working parents.

  • 12:05:17

    NNAMDIWe should point out that different households will or may experience this differently. Is this as big an issue for dual income families as it is for single parents?

  • 12:05:28

    BERKONAbsolutely. While single parents would clearly have a harder time footing a childcare bill this is a problem for households with two earners as well. Even homes where both parents have advanced degrees can find the cost cumbersome.

  • 12:05:42

    NNAMDIKimberly Perry, and childcare during the working days only a part of the puzzle here. What other forms of childcare do we need to think about and how expensive can they get?

  • 12:05:50

    PERRYChildcare is really broad. It depends on what the family needs are. For example, as Eliza mentioned there are many forms of childcare during the work day, but remember not every family works traditional work hours. So family childcare providers where someone has set up a childcare business in their home, they are able to offer non-traditional hours, so earlier in the day or morning, later in the evening, sometimes even overnight or over weekends. So there's a lot of flexibility in family childcare providers as well as some of the other traditional options that Eliza mentioned.

  • 12:06:30

    NNAMDIEliza, if you're a working parent it's very possible that your work day or even your family planning might need to be restructured to accommodate the surprise of childcare cost. Here's one of the parents you spoke with talking about facing the cost of childcare for twin babies.

  • 12:06:46

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALEYou know, because people can say like, "You should have known that, you know, twins were a possibility. And like what the cost of everything is. And you should be prepared for that." And like for a perspective, I mean, we are very fiscally responsible individuals. We've never had any debt until we got a mortgage. So it wasn't like, "Oh, okay. Here I am and I'm just pregnant willy-nilly and I didn't prepare for this and now I can't afford childcare. And now I'm looking at like maybe not working anymore, because I can't -- it doesn't make sense." Like no that's not the case. We've -- you know, up until this point been doing kind of like the standard, you know, American dream type thing where you go to school. You get a good job. You buy a house and then you have kids. And you get married somewhere in there too.

  • 12:07:46

    NNAMDIEliza, I got to tell you. I'm a parent of twins myself. But it was a very long time ago before the affordability crisis in this region is the way it is today. So tell us more about this mother. How much can we really anticipate childcare costs before we have to deal with them?

  • 12:08:01

    BERKONWell, as you can hear from her experience it's hard to anticipate. I mean, she is a former Marine and both she and her husband where able to get degrees without having to pay essentially or they ended up in a debt free situation before they started a family. And they even had Excel spreadsheets about how they were going to be able to afford everything and for childcare once they had a child. And then, you know, low and behold they get twins. And these twins actually have a complications. So that really threw sort of a wrench into their plans as far as the bills that they would need to cover and now having to find childcare for not one but two infants. And as I said for that might be $48,000 a year.

  • 12:08:50

    NNAMDIDid anyone you spoke with consider just foregoing outside childcare and staying at home with their young children? What consequences did that have for them?

  • 12:08:59

    BERKONSure. So I spoke to one father in Maryland, who left the workforce seven years ago to care for his then infant daughter. And now they've got two kids who are in elementary school. So now he's sitting there wondering sort of what his next move is and if he gets back into the workforce how are people going to respond to seeing that whole in his resume.

  • 12:09:22

    NNAMDISteve Rohde, in your work with the Maryland Family Network you help direct people to childcare resources that make sense for them. What are some of the factors you take into account?

  • 12:09:33

    ROHDEWell, we have a service called Locate Childcare that helps parents both by telephone and online. And what we do is we listen to parents to see what sort of situations they're looking for, what they're ability to pay is and then we make suggestions based on what they tell us. There are a number of factors or resources that we can direct parents to depending on their needs. So in Maryland -- and this is not unusual in other jurisdictions. We have what's called the Maryland Childcare Scholarship Program, which used to be called the Subsidy Program. And recently Maryland increased the amount of subsidy to help pay for childcare as well as increase the eligibility for parents. So that's one source. We also find that local jurisdictions also look for an opportunity to help parents. So in Montgomery County there's the Montgomery County Working Parents Assistance Program, which provides additional subsidy for people looking for childcare and who meet their eligibility requirements.

  • 12:10:39

    ROHDEWe also advice about the different kinds of tax credits that are available. So, for instance, there's a federal tax credit -- child and dependent care tax credit that people can take advantage of. Most of the states also have a version of that and that allows some flexibility. Although back to the original piece no matter how well you plan for this when you're faced with childcare everyone I know talks about sticker shock. They're just astounded about the amount of money it takes. And in assessments we've done and it may be in your reporting to pay for an infant for childcare currently costs more than to send a child for one year to a local state university. So it's something that people sort of hear about before it becomes a reality. And again they're just in shock when they see how much childcare costs.

  • 12:11:33

    NNAMDIWhat kinds of childcare do you usually recommend first?

  • 12:11:37

    ROHDEWell, in our situation the service we provide is only for licensed and regulated care. So it's childcare centers. It's family childcare homes. In Maryland a family childcare home is someone, who can care for up to eight children in their own home. And they have to meet certain criteria. There are a couple of exceptions where they can have more children than that if they have an assistant and have the physical setup where they can do that. And then there are childcare centers, which are generally done outside of the home. And in Maryland we have quite a range of centers anywhere from 12 children in a home -- or in a center, excuse me, to programs that are several 100 children. And work off of an employer base where they can have the workforce take advantage of their services.

  • 12:12:25

    NNAMDIHere's Stephanie on Capitol Hill. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:30

    STEPHANIEHi, Kojo. I wanted to add my voice to your question regarding the career trajectory and the cost of affordable childcare. I am an attorney, who works for the federal government and I have one child. And even with the availability of subsidized federal childcare centers, which are definitely less expensive than the private option I was still barely able to afford the childcare that we had for my daughter for the first several years before she qualified for our fantastic local pre-K three program in D.C. public schools.

  • 12:13:24

    STEPHANIEAnd this was something that I knew going into it. And I definitely put off having kids in part, because of that. However, I looked at it several ways, which made sense even though it didn't look like it did mathematically. The first was that this was an investment in my future career and the quality of life both for myself and my daughter.

  • 12:13:53

    STEPHANIEAnd second of all I looked at it as something that was obviously worth spending money on. What would be the most important thing in the world to me? Would I rather spend that money on a bigger house or on a vacation? No. It should be the person, who is caring for my child.

  • 12:14:14

    NNAMDIStephanie, thank you very much for sharing that story with us. Eliza, Stephanie is an indication of the kinds of factors that parents have to weigh one against the other before they come to that decision. Is that what you found in your reporting on this?

  • 12:14:29

    BERKONSure. And as she mentioned staying in the workforce even if you're essentially paying to work is an investment in your career. One professor I was speaking with about this, an economics professor, said that you can expect a 10 to 20 percent pay cut when you return to the workforce after a year or two years out of it.

  • 12:14:52

    NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation. It's a part of WAMU's Affordability Project being launched today. Right now we're talking about affordability and childcare. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:15:24

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about this region's affordability crisis and focusing on childcare. It's a part of the newly launched WAMU Affordability Project. We're talking with Eliza Berkon. She's a Reporter covering Affordability for WAMU. Steve Rohde is the Deputy Director of Resource & Referral Services for the Maryland Family Network. Kimberly Perry is the Executive Director of DC Action for Kids. And we're taking your calls. But first, Kimberly Perry, it's my understanding your take is actually that D.C. has a lot of options for childcare. What are some of those options?

  • 12:15:55

    PERRYYeah, it's important that families know, you know, as Steve laid out the District of Columbia has a number of options for parents looking for childcare understanding the quality of childcare, the choices and ranges of childcare. For example, parents can go to and also But I think the one thing parents don't know may be a hidden jewel at this point. In 2018, district leaders were responsive to DC Action, more than 37 other groups across the city, parents and community leaders and we passed something called the Birth to Three for All Act.

  • 12:16:37

    PERRYAnd Birth to Three is really important, because once fully funded the new law actually helps to reduce the cost of childcare for all families in the District. And it starts with those who need it most so by income, but it also provides critical health and child development supports for families with young children. I'll give you some examples. One of the reasons Birth to Three was so important and is a cornerstone is because it expands the quite generous child subsidy we have right now for very low income families. It's an application process, but it is based on your income.

  • 12:17:15

    PERRYWith the new Birth to Three law over time it expands the eligibility so that more families with higher incomes become eligible for that subsidy as well. The whole goal is that no family in the District of Columbia pay more than 10 percent of their income on childcare. So that's key. I think a lot of parents don't know about that. The Birth to Three law is being implemented as we speak, but it's not fully funded yet. And so we're really hoping parents will go to our --

  • 12:17:48

    NNAMDIWhy is it not fully funded yet?

  • 12:17:50

    PERRYThe D.C. Council and the mayor have to commit more funds to it. It's about $40 -- $50 million a year. So it's not a small investment, but it matters. It matters because it will reduce the cost of childcare. It will provide equity and parity for early childhood teachers, who are some of the least paid professionals in this entire equation. We talk about the cost of it, but we still have workers that aren't being paid what they should.

  • 12:18:21

    NNAMDILet's talk about that with Betty in Bethesda, Maryland. Betty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:26

    BETTYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Yes, I was a childcare provider, both as family childcare provider in the District, and then in Maryland I had several centers that I managed. And the cost of childcare providing it is as prohibitive as it is for parents trying to pay for quality childcare. The issues being that the margins for being able to hire quality staff, provide ongoing education, make sure that the classrooms are staffed under regulations at all times, and, you know, just providing extras that the kids will have during the day.

  • 12:19:10

    BETTYSome of the kids are there 12 hours a day. They work much harder than their parents at an eight hour work day. It's very expensive. And so even though parents may feel that they're paying the most for childcare that they can afford. It still doesn't cover the true cost of providing quality childcare.

  • 12:19:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment on that, Steve?

  • 12:19:34

    ROHDEShe is exactly on point, Betty is. I know in working with childcare providers it's unusual if I talk to a provider, who doesn't have more than one job in addition to the childcare that they provide. And she was spot on in terms of parents wonder about the expensive care and wonder about where all this money is going. And there are no programs that are getting rich off of this. There are very tight margins. I absolutely agree.

  • 12:20:02

    ROHDEAnd another aspect of this in addition to what are the supports that we can provide to parents are what are the supports we can provide to programs and childcare providers' family, childcare homes to help offset the cost of this. I know several years ago in Baltimore one of the things that was being considered was in some of the housing that was being renovated could there be a special deal for childcare providers to get housing at a lower rate as one way to help offset the -- this would be family childcare providers as one way to offset the cost of childcare.

  • 12:20:36

    ROHDESo I think we have to be really imaginative in this. Certainly it's going to require resources, but there may be a different way to approach resources as we look at how do we do supports.

  • 12:20:46

    PERRYCan I add something?

  • 12:20:47

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:20:48

    PERRYFor a minute, I just want to talk about the cost of care because I think the questions parents always have is like, what exactly does a budget look like in a childcare setting? And so anywhere from 52 to 62 percent of any childcare budget is going to be salaries. And the other part of that is overhead benefits and what it costs to run a business. But part of the reason the salaries are what they are and to try to get salaries up in parity is that centers and states are really looking at improving the quality of care.

  • 12:21:21

    PERRYI think what we -- we're in the mindset of babysitting and childcare, but what we now know with the onset of brain research and brain development is that especially for infants and toddlers these are key years where there's so much social emotional and cognitive development. I mean, over this time babies' brains are growing 85 percent of their adult size and they're creating millions of neurons, learning connections.

  • 12:21:50

    PERRYSo it's a huge time of growth. And that requires a more skilled educated and credentialed workforce. And that really is the key that parents need to understand that states and centers are trying to accommodate for.

  • 12:22:04

    NNAMDII must admit we only have about five more minutes in this segment. But, Steve, options like an unlicensed babysitter might sound cheaper, but what kind of risks might that pose?

  • 12:22:13

    ROHDEWell, by someone being unlicensed they have not had a background check. They have not had health and safety standards in their program looked at. You don't know what's going on with the program. And I would reinforce what Kimberly said about the quality of the experience. A lot of people when they look at infant care say, well, what's so big about infant care? They sleep. They eat. You rock them occasionally. That's all you need to do.

  • 12:22:39

    ROHDEBut if you think about a child -- an infant in care over the course of a day and all the different things that have to be done for them not just for health and safety. But for a child to optimally develop for that capacity that we're building in very young children the infant caregiver needs to be incredibly sensitive not just to the group of children, but also to individual children, and their individual needs and how you respond to them not only individually, but as they develop along a trajectory.

  • 12:23:07

    ROHDEI have a granddaughter, who is now 10 months old. And just the development I've seen in that and what I know she does in childcare is really important in terms of that development. So you need to have space for infants to crawl when they're ready, to sit up. You need to have space for interactions. You need to have space so that providers can sit and talk to the children.

  • 12:23:31

    NNAMDIGoing to ask you all to keep your responses briefer, because as I said we're running out of time. We got a tweet from Chris who says, "My wife and I earn a decent wage, but had to move from Silver Spring to Laurel, because our childcare, two kids, costs more than our mortgage. We went the au pair route and found a gem second time around, but still live check to check with almost four kids now. Without family close by we would be in ruins." And here now is Kenny in Washington. Kenny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:23:59

    KENNYYeah. I just wanted to say that I sympathize with the conversation. I'm the father of three children under the age of five and so that ends up being about $800 a week of daycare plus another $100 bucks a week of aftercare. Since school is out at 3:30 and who will pick up their kid at 3:30. And so I just want to say that it's a real thing, the Lord provides, but there's a real need for affordable childcare here in the city.

  • 12:24:21

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here now is Habe in Washington D.C. Habe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:28

    HABEThank you, Kojo. One thing I wanted to bring up was military families and the lack of protection for military spouses' employment for any reasonable accommodation. Military families constantly have to be moving around and they don't have that social network that we're talking about. And then on top of that since they end up being a single income family they can't afford daycare.

  • 12:24:51

    HABESo when we talk about innovative ways or looking at new aspects let's see where the root cause is and a lot of times when there aren't any of these employment or reasonable accommodations as (unintelligible) or any kind of move you work to a different location. For military spouses in our region it creates extreme financial hardship. And then they can't afford a daycare and that creates a ripple effect of employment and not being able to retain employment, because you don't have anybody to take care of your kids.

  • 12:25:23

    NNAMDIOkay, Steve, briefly.

  • 12:25:25

    ROHDEI absolutely agree. I would just add that there is a subsidy for military families and they can find more information if they're not already available on post about how to do that.

  • 12:25:35

    NNAMDIAnd finally, Eliza, in your reporting what have you heard as far as possible solutions to this affordability problem?

  • 12:25:40

    BERKONSure. So D.C., Virginia and Maryland all offer subsidies to low income families. And as I think Steve pointed out some counties, Maryland County and Arlington County also -- I'm sorry. Montgomery County and Arlington County also provide additional funds to supplement that. And there's an argument to be made for universal childcare. D.C. has provided two years of free preschool to residents for the past decade for three and four years, and in that time the number of mothers in the workforce increased by 12 percent, 10 percent of which was attributed to the growth of preschools.

  • 12:26:19

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have in this segment. Eliza Berkon is a Reporter covering affordability for WAMU. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:26

    BERKONGlad to be here.

  • 12:26:27

    NNAMDISteve Rohde is the Deputy Director of Resource & Referral Services for the Maryland Family Network. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:32

    ROHDEThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:26:33

    NNAMDIAnd Kimberly Perry is the Executive Director of DC Action for Kids. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:38

    PERRYThanks so much, Kojo.

  • 12:26:39

    NNAMDIAs I said, you can hear Eliza's reporting on childcare cost this evening on All Things Considered. And find more at We're going to take a short break right now. When we come back we'll talk about affordability and retirement. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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