Survey shows cost of childcare and affording food weighs on Wisconsin parents

A version of this article by Sarah Halpern-Meekin was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Ideas Lab.

Parents hold their child next to a pond.

Money is always on a parent’s mind, and perhaps especially so at this time of year. We’re just coming out of the holiday season, which can be costly for many. Tax season is creeping up, bringing refunds for some and payments to the IRS for others. Congress is currently debating legislation that could increase the Child Tax Credit, so parents are waiting to learn if they’ll get more tax relief. And families are looking ahead to the summer, when camp slots need to be secured and paid for.

Families with young children face their own unique challenges as they raise the next generation who are in this key stage of development. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are going through amazing changes at these ages—it’s a foundational stage of physical, socioemotional, and cognitive development that sets the stage for their futures. It’s also a high-stakes time for parents, and one that is compounded by many financial stressors. Through the WisconSays/La Follette Survey, we at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have tried to learn more about the perspectives and needs of these families of young children. This topic is part of our yearlong Main Street Agenda project that we hope will shed light on the issues that matter to Wisconsin residents as we approach the 2024 election. My colleague, J. Michael Collins, kicked things off last month by discussing Wisconsin residents’ feelings of financial security overall.

Portrait of Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Professor of Public Affairs
Sarah Halpern-Meekin is a Professor with the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the  School of Human Ecology.

Income inequality, wealth, and inflation on minds of parents

In this portion of the survey, conducted out of the UW Survey Center, we asked nearly 4,000 Wisconsinites about their most pressing concerns, and we saw how the concerns of families with young children may have been distinct from those of other households. The top two most pressing concerns we saw were inflation and the unequal distribution of income and wealth. While families with young children were like other households in their level of concern about income inequality (47% vs. 50%), they were more likely to cite inflation as a concern (75% vs. 63%). While inflation has recently slowed and the economy is in good shape overall, these data show that parents of young children are still worried about the effects of the recent inflationary period that stemmed largely from the financial turmoil brought on by the pandemic. The survey was conducted in the second half of 2023 as inflation was just coming under control, so it will be interesting to see how parents feel about inflation if it continues to decline throughout the year. Since this is a panel survey that will continue to ask these questions of the participants, this will be a measure we will be monitoring closely.

It’s no surprise that parents of young children are so attuned to inflation. The time after a child joins a family can be a particularly financially vulnerable period for many, even in the best of economic times.

To start, most new parents in the United States do not have paid family leave (and some have no unpaid leave), so taking time to recover from giving birth and to care for a new child can come at the cost of lost wages or even leaving the labor force. Currently, 11 states plus the District of Columbia offer paid family and medical leave; Wisconsin isn’t one of them.

Diapers alone can run parents $1,000 in first year of child’s life

On top of that lost income, families with young children face some heavy costs, such as diapers, wipes, and formula. Diapers alone can cost about $1,000 in that first year of life. A part of that cost in Wisconsin is paying for the sales taxes the state levies on diapers. Many other types of medical supplies are not subject to such a tax. The cost of diapers, though, pales in comparison to the cost of child care. In Wisconsin, like many other states, it can be cheaper to pay in-state college tuition than for child care—costing about $13,000 a year per child.

Although child care-related issues have received an array of recent attention in the legislature, it also ended pandemic-era funding that had buoyed child care centers in recent years. Without a state-level solution, some counties have been exploring how best to address child care needs and costs in their areas. To that end, La Follette graduate students have recently helped the counties of La Crosse and Outagamie to conduct in-depth research into their own child care solutions.

In light of all that, it is not surprising that families with young children in our survey are more likely than other households to say it is difficult for them to cover all their expenses in a typical month—more than a third of families with young children say this is an issue compared to less than a quarter of other households. They are also less confident they could manage an unexpected expense (40% vs. 50%). Concerningly, 40% of families with young children report dealing with food insecurity, compared to 25% of other households. Managing financial concerns can mean more stressed parents and fewer resources for children.

Even if we don’t have young children ourselves, it affects the long-term prospects of the state of Wisconsin if families with young children can thrive. To ensure that Wisconsin’s foundation is as sound as possible, it’s imperative that we support the families raising the next generation. This calls for broad attention to their concerns in the upcoming local, state, and federal elections.

Logo for the Main Street Agenda with the text, "what matters to Wisconsin, policy perspectives, presented by the La Follette School of Public Affairs in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"What matters to Wisconsin

The La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are collaborating to share insights on how Wisconsinites feel about important policy topics through a yearlong project called the Main Street Agenda. Each month, the La Follette School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will feature a different policy topic, analyzing new statewide survey data to highlight what matters to Wisconsin. The WisconSays/La Follette Survey being used for the Main Street Agenda is a subset of the new WisconSays opinion panel based out of the UW-Madison Survey Center. There are more than 3,500 Wisconsinites enrolled in this representative panel.

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