Is child care in Louisiana affordable? Report says yes, but local experts disagree

By Jennifer Larino, | The Times-Picayune [January 05, 2017]

Working parents nationwide are spending a sizeable chunk of their paychecks each year to provide child care for their kids. Louisiana, however, may be the only state where child care is actually considered affordable.

That's according to a new report from Child Care Aware of America, an Arlington, Va.-based group that conducts research on and advocates for policies to improve child care.

The report is likely to raise eyebrows among working parents in New Orleans, and child care experts here in Louisiana say there are reasons to be skeptical of the findings.

The report found the average cost of placing an infant in a child care center ranges wildly depending on where you live -- from as high as $17,062 a year in Massachusetts to $4,822 in Mississippi. For some parents, including those with multiple children in care, dropping a child off at daycare can cost as much as putting them through college.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says child care can be considered "affordable" if it costs below 7 percent of the median income in an area. In 2015, the cost of infant center-based care exceeded that threshold and was considered unaffordable for married couples in 49 states and the District of Columbia, according to the report.

Only one state bucked the trend: Louisiana.

It cost about $5,754 a year on average to put an infant in center-based care in Louisiana. That accounts for 6.7 percent of earnings for married parents in Louisiana, who had a median annual income of $85,357 in 2015, according to Census Bureau data.

Local experts have been quick to punch holes in the report's conclusion. They say child care affordability and quality remain big problems in Louisiana and the report shows only a slice of reality.

"It really is not reflective of what is going on with families here in the state," said Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.

Why do child care costs appear lower in Louisiana? 

The report points to the state's School Readiness Tax Credits as one factor. Lawmakers approved the package of five tax credits in 2010 with the goal of improving the quality of child care statewide.

That includes a child care expense credit for families with income under $25,000 a year who place their child in a high-quality child care program.

Parents can qualify for credits for up to 200 percent of the cost of child care if they enroll their young child in a five-star program (the state's Quality Start program rates child care programs in Louisiana on a five-star scale). The value of the credit decreases for parents who use lower-rated child care programs.

Credits are also available for early childhood educators who complete additional training and certifications as well as businesses that invest in child care for employees.

Jeanie Donovan, economic policy specialist at Loyola University's Jesuit Social Research Institute, said the child care expense credit is a boost for low-income parents, providing an incentive to seek out child care programs rather than leaving the baby with family or relying on other informal care.

"The higher the quality of child care and the lower the income of the parent, the more they get back from the credit," Donovan said.

But she said the credit does not drag down the cost of care for everyone. It also doesn't help parents who cannot afford to pay for child care upfront and wait for a credit.

"For everyone else, there's really not a lot of help available to access quality child care," Donovan said.