Placing an infant in a child care center in Minnesota costs more than a year of state college tuition -- and can consume half the annual income of a typical single mother -- according to a national report released Thursday.
Minnesota was the nation's second costliest state for center-based child care last year, relative to the state's median income, according to the report by Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
One year of infant care in a center cost $13,579 in Minnesota, while one year for a preschooler cost $10,470. In 17 states, a year of infant care cost less than $8,000.
While state experts said the analysis makes Minnesota seem more out of step with the nation than it really is, they acknowledged that the high cost of care is becoming a burden for low- and middle-income families.
"Every time we do a rate increase, we have to sit around the table and say: 'How many families are we going to lose?'" said Chad Dunkley, who directs the New Horizon Academy child care chain and is president of the Minnesota Child Care Association.
The high cost may also be pushing more parents to use in-home child care -- where costs are lower but staffing and safety regulations are less strict -- or even illegal and unlicensed home day cares. A Star Tribune investigation has found that serious safety violations and deaths occur more often with in-home care than with large child care centers.
Dunkley said the high costs reflect stringent state requirements for centers and their teacher ratios, along with the demand among Twin Cities parents for college-trained teachers and centers with educational curriculum.
"They want to see child education, not care," he said. "They want a combination of both."
Sasha Reese was shocked by the cost this summer, when she moved her 5-year-old son, Owen, from a licensed in-home day care to a Montessori preschool in Prior Lake. The cost hurt more when her husband lost his job, but the couple kept their son in the program so he wouldn't lose his spot.
"It's a good opportunity for him to be with other kids," said Reese, who works for a Minneapolis law firm. "He's an only child. And it gets my husband time to look for a job."
The high average cost in Minnesota reflects an unusual factor -- the concentration of child care centers in the Twin Cities, where labor and building costs are greater, said Ann McCully, executive director of the Minnesota Child Care Resources & Referral Network, a publicly funded agency that helps parents find child care.
Two-thirds of Minnesota's centers are in high-cost urban areas, she said. In other states, the split is often closer to 50-50.
In rural Minnesota, parents rely more on licensed in-home day care providers. The average annual cost of this form of care in Minnesota -- $7,686 for an infant -- is closer to national averages.
Cost of quality
The authors' takeaway message isn't that centers must slash tuition or states must loosen regulations. The organization found that states such as Mississippi with the lowest costs also had some of the poorest child care quality.
Instead, states should seek ways to help more families place their children in top-quality child care, said Ollie Smith, interim executive director of Child Care Aware.
"Parents want quality care. They want their children to be safe," Smith said. "But too many families struggle with the cost of care as they hope for the best for their children."
The Reeses tried to cut costs by placing their son at the Montessori preschool part time, even though they'd prefer full-time. Reese said her husband or mother-in-law take Owen in the afternoons.
Reese said the high cost of care has also influenced the couple's decision on when and if to have more children.
"Honestly, I don't know how people can afford to have two or more in day care at the same time," she said. "I hate to put a number on having children but I don't know, we enjoy having a home and keeping food on the table."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744