Idaho’s child care dilemma: Too expensive, and workers paid too low

The advantages of preschool in Boise

Amy Pence-Brown, a parent of a Hawthorne Elementary student, talks about preschool efforts there in April 2015.
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Amy Pence-Brown, a parent of a Hawthorne Elementary student, talks about preschool efforts there in April 2015.

Katy Lightfield expected she and her husband would take a pay cut when they moved early last year to Meridian from Austin, Texas. And they did — a $30,000 cut. But it was worth it to be back in their home state, closer to family.

What she didn’t expect was that child care in Idaho would cost as much as it did in Austin.

The Lightfields will spend $16,000 this year on tuition for an infant and a 3-year-old at the Boise State University Children’s Center. That is with a discount for employees. Katy Lightfield works at Boise State as a financial technician.

“The cost is just atrocious,” said Lightfield, who thinks the center is better than others in the area.

Many families in Idaho — a state known for its low wages — put a large share of their income toward child care.

The average family in Idaho spends about $600 a month on child care for an infant, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that says child care costs should be capped at 10 percent of a family’s income, as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton proposes. The cost for a typical preschooler is slightly less, about $575.

$6,900 and $7,200 Idaho’s average yearly costs for child care for a 4-year-old and an infant

That is more than a year’s tuition at a public college. It rivals the average Idaho family’s expenses for housing and food.

Parents and grandparents from around the Treasure Valley told the Idaho Statesman that child care is overwhelming their budgets, compounding the financial stress of student-loan debts and the rising cost of housing.

The average Idaho family’s expense for infant and 4-year-old child care increased by 8.5 percent to 19.9 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to survey data compiled by Child Care Aware, an advocacy organization.

Until this state steps up and starts funding some of our early childhood programs, we’re going to continue down this path.

Beth Oppenheimer, executive director, Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children


Idaho is one of few states that do not offer public preschool. That means families have a few options until a child can attend school: hire nannies, lean on family members, have a parent stay home or pay for tuition at child care centers.

Based on federal guidelines for affordable child care, about 38 percent of Idaho families can afford to have someone take care of their baby when they go to work. Child care for two kids consumes more than 26 percent of the average Idaho family’s income.

But at the same time, Idaho’s 2,120 child care workers are not getting rich. Their $8.79 median hourly wage is third-lowest among U.S. states.

Megan MacCleary is a single mother who started a small child-care business, Megan’s Munchkins Preschool, in her Nampa home about six years ago. She charges $100 or $125 per week, depending on whether the child is potty trained.

I am now three months from my due date, panicking. My sister-in-law is actually moving in with us to watch my daughter while I’m at work.

Christena Lushnikov, Kuna

“When you find quality child care … it does add up,” she said. “But it’s also the cost of having a child. If you have a child, and you want to work outside the home, that’s a cost you factor in before you get pregnant.”

She has five children in her preschool and hopes to add three more. Enrollment is not steady or guaranteed. After the costs of running the business — insurance, licensing and certifications — and taxes, she makes just over minimum wage.

MacCleary said her income last year was so low that she is on Medicaid.


Sarah Faires is a single mother who moved from Georgia to Boise a year ago.

“I actually grew up in Idaho, so I’ve got a lot of family and resources here,” she said. “When my husband and I separated, it felt like Boise would be the best for me, for job opportunities. And so far the school situation has been much better.”

Faires got a job as a hospital pharmacy technician and found a before- and after-school program for her 10-year-old son with special needs and her 7-year-old daughter.

The long hospital shifts paid enough that she could afford $700 a month for two hours a day of child care and transportation to and from school — about the same as it cost in Georgia. But the job made it impossible to respond when her son urgently needed to be picked up. At one point, she hired a college student for $10 an hour to stay at her house while she worked the night shift for $15 an hour.

Idaho is a state that has very low wages. So that, coupled with child care businesses that are trying to run a profitable business, it’s kind of a no-win situation.

Beth Oppenheimer, executive director, Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children

“About half of my paycheck went to rent, and a third of it went to child care. And I just had that little bit of it left for everything else,” she said.

Faires quit the pharmacy job in June to become a real estate agent. It’s a more flexible schedule, she said.

She enrolled her son and daughter at a local Boys and Girls Club — an option for school-age children. It cost her $600 for the summer, weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. with breakfast, lunch and a snack provided.


Kimberly Hill, 22, joined the ranks of many other Idaho mothers two years ago.

She decided to stop working and stay home with her infant son. He is now a toddler, sharing the house with Hill’s 7-year-old stepdaughter.

She opened Silly Monkeys Childcare at her home in Nampa, getting a license that allows up to 12 children.

“Besides how hard it was to leave my child, I couldn’t afford child care,” she said.

Hill charges about $400 a month for full-time care, which she thinks is “pretty cheap” compared with other Boise-area centers.

Despite the lower-than-average fee, and meals provided, she said families tell her it is too expensive.

“Currently, I have three kids enrolled, and I’m still struggling to make ends meet,” she said.

Boise mother Ashley McDowell also works in her 2- and 4-year-old sons’ day care, Great Beginnings.

She works 35 to 40 hours a week in addition to full-time college, she said. In exchange for her shifts, she gets a half-price discount on the family’s $1,300 monthly bill.

“I don’t think that people could do it off of a single income,” she said. “I know a lot of the parents at our day care struggle with it because they pay so much.”


Hill and others hope Idaho policymakers will pay attention to the high cost of child care and make changes so that child care is both affordable for parents and allows child-care workers to make a good living.

“Some states actually put state dollars into Head Start programs to expand some of the slots for children. Idaho is not one of those states,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and a candidate for the Boise School Board in the Sept. 6 election.

“High-quality child care is expensive,” she said. “So what we have is providers in this really tough situation, because they’re trying to provide high-quality care, but they have to put it on the backs of the families, because where else are they going to get [the funds]?”

The presidential candidates have their own proposals. Donald Trump wants to make child care fully tax-deductible. Hillary Clinton wants to cap costs at 10 percent of income and provide universal preschool for 4-year-old children.

State Rep. Hy Kloc, a Boise Democrat, has pushed for public preschool as a way to help low-income Idaho families have the same opportunities as those with more money.

“It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen; it’s a question of when,” he said . “When I started investigating this back in 2013, we were one of 11 states that didn’t offer preschool.” Idaho is now one of five, he said.

Kloc said making preschool open to anyone would do more than saving parents money. He said early education nets a return on investment of $7 to $11 per dollar spent, through reduction in crime and teen pregnancies, less spending on remediation, and stronger economies as more children go on to higher education.

Kloc is working with other legislators on a new version of his 2013 bill.

We haven’t given up. I’m coming back.

Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, on preschool legislation

McDowell said preschool would be a good option for parents, even if it meant higher taxes.

“Maybe the government will help, with more child care assistance, or give some incentives,” said Hill, of Silly Monkeys Childcare. “I have high school kids coming to me, saying, ‘How am I going to do this?’ They get state assistance, but they still have the copay. How’s a 17-year-old going to afford $100 a month when she’s going to school?”

The state assistance is the Idaho Child Care Program. Several parents said it helps, but the income cutoff to receive assistance is low, the copays are a burden on some families, and the local market rates the state agrees to pay are lower in some cases than what centers charge.

In addition, some Boise centers have had to hire more preschool or daycare workers to meet stricter city regulations on the number of children allowed per child-care worker.

MacCleary, the single mother who runs Megan’s Munchkins Preschool, sees three options: raise the minimum wage, boost funding for the Idaho Child Care Program so more low-income families get subsidies, or have more parents stay home with children. The latter would be her first choice, MacCleary said, even though it would put her out of business.

I am a grandma of three kids ages 5, 3 and 16 months. I have baby-sat all three since birth, because I don’t charge and child care costs are out of reach.

Keri Taylor, Eagle

“Ultimately, when you do the math, and mom is only making X amount, how much of that money is going toward lunches out, and extra clothing, and taxes, and gas to get to and from?” she said. “You have to look at all of that and see if it’s cost-effective.”

MacCleary decided to stay home with her children even while she was married. Now, as a child-care provider, MacCleary’s income is low enough that she would qualify for assistance to put her own 6-year-old in daycare.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

Help with child care costs

Federal tax credit: For working or job-searching parents/guardians. Credit can be up to 35 percent of expenses, applied to as much as $3,000 of the expenses for one child (up to $1,050 tax credit) or $6,000 for two children. Allowed for children 12 and under. Can be used to pay for care from many types of providers, including day camps.

Idaho state tax deduction: For families that qualified for the federal tax credit above. Can deduct some of the costs of child care, according to a formula.

Idaho Child Care Program: For working, job-searching or student parents/caretakers with very low household income. Pays for costs up to market rate. Requires a copay for full-time care of $40 to $150 per child; part-time care is half the copay. Allowed for children 12 and under. Can be used for child care centers, family or home-based care.

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