Ashley Ingram was excited to be expecting her second child. But one night when she and her then-husband were chatting about baby names, she recalls, she burst into tears at the thought of once again paying for day care.
Ingram, who lives in Naperville, remembered the hefty child care bills she paid as a single mom raising her first son. They amounted to $14,000 a year, her biggest expense — more than her rent and utilities combined at the time and nearly a third of the $45,000 per year she earned working in operations for a photography studio.
The squeeze continues, even though she gets money from her now-ex-husband to help pay $2,000 a month for high-quality day care for their 2-year-old son, care Ingram worries her first son, now 9, didn't receive.
Ingram hasn't been able to buy a house, take her sons on vacation or put aside savings.
"It's been hard because I feel like I'm living in poverty," said Ingram, 31, who recently left a job as operations manager at a nonprofit and still does contract work for the organization. "I am living paycheck to paycheck just because of day care."
During a divisive election season, the high cost of child care is a concern for people of all political persuasions and families across much of the income spectrum. More than half of U.S. families say they spend more than 10 percent of their household income on child care, and one in five spend more than a quarter, according to a survey by Care.com, a caregiver services marketplace. Infant care in a center, which in Cook County tops on average $13,000 a year, exceeds the cost of a public university's in-state tuition in a majority of states, another recent study found.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have crafted proposals to make child care more affordable, the first time since 1990 that presidential candidates have made it an election issue.
But small solutions won't be enough to address a widespread problem — not only of high care costs, but of low wages of the people providing the care, advocates say.
"We just haven't embraced this issue as an important public issue that keeps the country running, and it's time," said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center. "It's an area that needs a bold new investment, and then it can work."
Relieving the cost burden on parents while raising the wages of child care workers in an already high-cost system means funneling more public money to child care.
Clinton and Trump's plans propose different ways of doing that, though their price tags and funding sources remain relatively vague.
Clinton seeks to cap the amount a family spends on child care at 10 percent of household income. She also is calling for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for working moms and dads, who would earn at least two-thirds of their regular wages while they're away. She said she would pay for it through taxes on the wealthy.
Trump's plan is to rewrite the tax code to allow parents, including stay-at-home parents, who earn less than $250,000 ($500,000 for couples filing jointly) to deduct child care expenses from their income taxes for up to four dependents.
Lower-income earners, who don't always make enough money to owe federal taxes and might not benefit from the deduction, could receive child-care spending rebates through the existing earned income tax credit, which could mean almost $1,200 more per eligible family. Trump also calls for six weeks of paid maternity leave, funded through unemployment insurance, with the benefit being equal to what would be paid to a laid-off employee.
Given the nuances of the plans and variables such as number of children, it is hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison. But Care.com ran some numbers to determine how much each plan would save a two-parent family with one child in Illinois at varying income levels. The calculation was based on the state's average in-center child care cost of $10,299 per year and an average nanny cost of $27,854.
A family at the poverty line, with a household income of $24,036, would benefit far more under Clinton's plan. For in-center care, such families would pay $2,404, while under Trump's plan, if they got the tax deduction, they would pay $8,695.
Families making the Illinois median income of $59,588 also would benefit more under Clinton's plan. For in-center and nanny care their cost would be $5,959, assuming the 10 percent cap applies to in-home care as well, which is unclear. Under Trump's plan, such families would pay $8,695 for in-center care and $26,329 for nanny care, after a savings of $1,534 from a tax deduction.
Families in the top 1 percent, who earn a median income of $424,000 in Illinois, would save nothing under Clinton's proposal because average child care costs already are less than 10 percent of that income, but under Trump's plan they would save $3,376, given their higher tax rate. That would bring their in-center costs to $6,583 and in-home costs to $24,478 — so they would actually pay less for child care than people earning median income, according to Care.com's analysis.
Ingram, the Naperville mom of two, is skeptical that anything will change at the policy level anytime soon and thinks employers need to take the lead in being more understanding.
Companies that have invested in being kind to parents have reaped benefits. Accenture said that its retention of women employees rose 40 percent as a result of it doubling its maternity leave to 16 weeks in March 2015.
Patagonia, which offers on-site child care to employees at its headquarters and distribution centers, boasts that 100 percent of moms have returned to work after maternity leave over the past five years, and that parents with children in the on-site program have 25 percent less turnover than employees overall.
Such benefits, while on the rise, remain the exception. Affordable child care is "a basic" that keeps families stable and the economy humming, Blank said, and its elusiveness has far-reaching consequences. The stress caused by worrying about cost and quality can hurt family dynamics.
A parent's decision to drop out of the workforce — usually the mom — because it makes more financial sense to stay home with the kids leads to thwarted career paths, a dearth of women in senior roles and lost economic potential. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy research organization, calculated $28.9 billion in wages are lost annually in the U.S. when people don't work because they lack access to affordable child care or paid family leave.
In lower-income families where not working is not an option, parents may work extra jobs, often service jobs with erratic or nontraditional hours, that make reliable child care even harder to come by and put their young children in cheaper care arrangements. As a result, their kids might lose out on the strong start that can help them do better in school later, perpetuating inequalities, Blank said.
In Illinois, the $10,229 average cost of care for one child in a licensed home or formal day care center, higher than the national average, equates to 94 percent of median rent in the state and 18 percent of the state's median household income, according to a report by the progressive think tank New America and Care.com.
Illinois is among the most unstable states for affordable child care because of its budget crisis, Blank said. Low-income families that relied on state subsidies to help pay for child care were denied entry to some programs because of payment delays to child care providers, or were left out of the subsidized program altogether after the Rauner administration tightened eligibility requirements.
Illinois was the only state last year to lower the household income eligibility limit for receiving subsidized child care, which permits working parents to share the cost with the state on a sliding scale based on income and family size. The state dropped the income limit from about $37,166 for a family of three to about $32,659.
Lenita Edgeworth, of Oak Park, is baffled that the state considers her income to exceed the need for subsidies. The single mom recently started a job as a parent educator with Easter Seals, earning an annual salary in the mid-$30,000s, but after taxes and insurance she takes home far less.
Edgeworth, 38, wants to enroll her 9-year-old daughter, Ellie, in care before and after school so that she can have flexibility with her work schedule, but for now she can only afford after-school care at her daughter's elementary school. The program has worked with her to make it affordable, but even the $40 per week she pays is a squeeze when she is trying to catch up on bills that piled up when her prior job cut her hours and income.
Meals get short shrift as a result — breakfast is simple cereal or oatmeal, and for dinner mother and daughter often share a $6 Subway footlong sandwich with chips. When Edgeworth had to buy clothes for her new job, every dollar mattered.
"Do you buy the pants you need, or the shoes you need, or do you eat?" she said.
The cost of child care has been rising. In Chicago, the cost of caring for a preschool-age child grew 14 percent in child care centers and 18 percent in licensed homes between 2010 and 2015, outpacing inflation, according to a report from Illinois Action for Children, which administers the state's child care assistance program for Cook County. The cost of care for a 2-year-old rose from 15 percent of median family income in 2007 to 18 percent in 2014.
Sessy Nyman, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships for Illinois Action for Children, attributes the increase to higher utility prices, insurance premiums and other costs of doing business. In addition, Illinois increased the professional development requirements for caregivers, which also can raise costs.
Yet the wages of child care workers, which make up the bulk of program costs, are a constant concern. In Illinois, child care workers on average earned $10.50 an hour in 2015 despite a growing body of research showing the importance of early childhood experiences on brain development and later success, according to a report released this year by the University of California at Berkeley.
Nearly half of child care workers in Illinois are part of families that depend on some sort of public assistance, and turnover among early childhood educators ranges from 20 to 30 percent, a problem because children need consistent relationships with adults.
"When the cost of living goes up but the cost that we pay providers doesn't, that's going to catch up with us," Nyman said.