Identical twin brothers Chance and Cameron Gardiner cruise the playroom on a Monday morning, bopping from the fish tank to the child-size table where three preschool girls build a castle out of blocks. The 3-year-olds then move on to a caregiver playing pat-a-cake with one of two babies in infant seats.
On a typical school day, the twins’ older sister, Emily, who is in the second grade, will join them for after-school care at this gray-shingled house in Freeport, where the main floor has been turned over to Innovative Daycare. Janna Rodriguez is the owner and lives on the second floor.
“Child care is really my support system so I can work,” said Ashley Renaud, mother of the Gardiners. The majority of the children at Innovative Daycare, including the Gardiners, have their child-care fees paid by Nassau County with state and federal funding. Without financial help, Renaud would pay close to $4,000 a month for her three children. “I don’t know how I would be able to do it. I have housing and car and food and clothing and other things to provide for these kids.”
Child care is a major expense, taking a bite out of a family's budget for five years or more, depending on how many children there are and how far apart they're spaced. Even families earning a solid living — the median household income for Long Island was $120,124 per 2021 census data — can feel overwhelmed by the monthly cost. It can become even more of a burden when factoring in older children who continue to need after-school care during the academic year and full day camp or other options in the summer.
Through scores of interviews with experts and Long Island families, Newsday's Feeling the Squeeze series gives insight into why the region is so expensive and explains the financial toll that comes with living here. From struggles to afford child care, to the burdens of high housing costs and more, these stories impact Long Islanders of all backgrounds and walks of life.
The average price of full-time child care in Suffolk ranges from $12,000 a year for a preschooler to $20,000 a year for an infant, according to Jennifer Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk, a not-for-profit that helps families find child care.
“To have a child in child care costs more than to send a child to college for a year,” said Sean Reyes, deputy director of the Child Care Council of Nassau.
Nassau's most recent average cost for full-time child care is $15,000 a year for an infant and more than $13,000 for a toddler or preschooler, Reyes said. Tuition and fees at Stony Brook University and Farmingdale State University this year, for instance, totaled $11,422. Tuition and fees at SUNY Old Westbury total $8,379.
Most families on Long Island don’t qualify for government aid. For them, the cost is out of pocket.
Renaud, 29, a full-time hospital medical assistant, qualifies for support under the New York State Child Care Assistance Program's income cap, which was $83,250 for a family of four, nearly three times the federal poverty level. She is required to pay a copay for child care.
On June 1, the state cap rose to $90,000 because the federal poverty level rose to $30,000 for a family of four, and on Oct. 1 it will jump again to $99,250 using a new state formula, said Katie Albitz, a child care advocate with the Empire State Campaign for Child Care.
Care on credit cards
Once a family qualifies for child care assistance, the next hurdle is finding a center that will accept it, providers say. Not every provider is willing to accept the government subsidy, which can be several hundred dollars a month per child less than what Long Island day care centers typically charge, and involves additional state oversight and paperwork, Rodriguez said.
Child care is expensive for families because providers don’t receive enough government assistance, said Maria Ahrens, director/owner of Paper Planes Early Learning Center in Mount Sinai, a center with 90 children. “Every single cent that comes from a parent is what pays for paying the teachers, the rent, the utilities, the food that’s provided, the diapers, changing pads, strollers, all the materials. Every single thing that’s in a child care program is being paid for by parents’ tuition.”
Full-time infant care in Ahrens' center, for instance, costs $1,837 a month. A preschooler is $1,558. On top of that, many parents aren’t paying just one child’s tuition at a time.
It’s a mortgage payment on Long Island. Who can possibly afford that without being stressed and strapped? It’s just a very flawed system right now, and support is needed.”
- Maria Ahrens, director/owner of Paper Planes Early Learning Center
As it stands, even families earning what they themselves call good salaries are struggling to afford what they consider to be quality child care. Samantha Calandrino, 34, of Shoreham, who works for New York State, and her husband, James, 34, who owns a small business, make about $170,000 a year combined — nearly twice the current income cutoff for a family of four to qualify for a state child care subsidy. Still, they can’t make their child care payments every month for their twin boys, Ryder and Jameson, age 3, out of their budget. It costs them $3,000 a month to keep the boys in Paper Planes full time, Samantha Calandrino said.
“We still put day care on a credit card every single month,” Calandrino said. “At the end of day, you’re digging yourself deeper and deeper.” The Calandrinos try to throw chunks of money at the debt when they can — for instance when they get money back from their taxes — but they are currently $30,000 in credit card debt just for day care, Calandrino said. She said she can’t even fathom how families making less than they do do it.
Calandrino said some of her friends have turned to family members who can watch their children for them. “So they don’t feel our pinch,” she said.
The solution: universal child care?
The solution, child care advocates propose, is for the state to enact universal child care for ages birth to 5 available to any family that needs it, paid for through taxes.
“I compare it to public school. Public school is paid for by government funding, and everybody gets to go,” Rojas said. If it’s not entirely free, then perhaps families using the care could pay 10% of their gross income, with the government covering the rest, she said. “It’s overhauling the system completely in a way that builds a system that compensates staff and keeps it affordable.”
But the political will to do so has been lacking among legislators, Rojas said. "They always find money when they need it. Why aren't they finding money for this? I think people think child care should be a personal responsibility. There are other priorities they would rather focus on."
New York State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Queens, chair of the Assembly's Standing Committee on Children and Families, pointed out that the state has to balance child care with other needs, including help for nursing homes, for developmentally disabled children, for children in foster care. "Universal child care would cost a monstrous amount of money. Billions and billions of dollars," he said. "It's cost prohibitive. I'm coming to the table with child care; every other elected official in the state has got a priority. You'd have to have a governor who is willing to raise taxes."
The state has been trying to do as much as it can within budgetary constraints, he said. For instance, the raising of the cap to three times the federal poverty level enabled an additional 400,000 children statewide to qualify for care, he said. The additional cap increase in October should help even more families to qualify, he said.
Child care providers said they wish they could charge less, but that they are already operating on a very small profit margin. The state licenses three levels of child care providers. The first is people who take other children in at their homes, called family day care. The second is people who operate out of a bigger home and so are authorized to accept a greater number of children and employ more staff, called group family day care. And centers, which are facilities that can accommodate still more children due to access to a larger space, frequently with multiple classrooms of children separated by age.
Seventy percent to 80% of their overhead is staffing costs, providers said. The state mandates certain staffing ratios for each level of facility — for instance, a child care center must have one staff member for every four infants.
Like other business owners in the current market, Ahrens said she struggles to find qualified staff — especially when she can only afford to pay them between $16 and $21 an hour based on their experience level. “All these box stores … can pay $18 an hour for a job that isn’t as stressful,” Ahrens said.
Ahrens’ center has nine classrooms, but only eight are operating because she said she can’t find staff she believes should be working with children whose brains are developing between the ages of infancy and 5.
When she can, she said she still can’t afford to pay them what child care workers should be earning. At $16 an hour, that’s $33,280 a year; at $21 an hour, that’s $43,680. And employees don’t get benefits such as health insurance, she adds. “If you do the math, that’s not a living wage,” Ahrens said.
Rodriguez explains the house she rents for Innovative Daycare was $3,400 a month in 2018; now it’s $3,800, and she got an email from the landlord that in July he is raising it $300 more to $4,100 per month. In addition, the cost of food has drastically increased.
“I have to provide breakfast, a.m. snack, lunch, p.m. snack and dinner,” she said. She pays two full-time assistants minimum wage of $15 an hour, plus provides workers' compensation insurance, disabilities leave insurance, a week's vacation and a week of sick time. She pays for liability insurance to protect her business. She said her operating expenses are $10,000 to $12,000 a month.
I am not on payroll because I cannot pay myself. I take a check whenever I am able to take a check. It’s just becoming financially unfeasible for me to stay within this field.”
- Janna Rodriguez, Innovative Daycare owner
Some help is coming
RESOURCES FOR CHILD CARE
New York State is slowly acknowledging and trying to improve the situation, said Albitz, of the Empire State Campaign for Child Care, which is pushing for free universal child care. “We try to make incremental progress toward our goal every year,” she said.
For instance, the state raised the income caps twice this year. It’s an all-or-nothing situation — either a family qualifies for the subsidy or it doesn’t; if the family does, they only pay a copay, Albitz said. There’s no sliding scale for subsidy. The campaign had also hoped for funding that would add $12,500 to each child care employee’s salary, but only $2,000 a year wage supplement was approved, Albitz said.
“There’s very little wiggle room in a child care business plan,” Rojas said. “You can’t raise what you pay unless you raise parent fees, so we’re stuck in this cycle. It’s a business structure that isn’t working anymore.”
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WHAT TO KNOW
- Child care can cost more than sending a child to state college.
- The average price of full-time child care ranges from $12,000 a year for a preschooler to $20,000 a year for an infant, said Jennifer Rojas, executive director of the nonprofit Child Care Council of Suffolk.
- In Nassau, the average cost for full-time child care is $15,000 a year for an infant and more than $13,000 for a toddler or preschooler.