Editor’s Note: Civil Beat is examining why life in the islands is so expensive in an ongoing series, Living Hawaii. We are looking at what’s behind high prices here and discussing ways to bring them down.

After teacher Mai Hall realized that child care for her two children — an 18-month-old boy and a 10-year-old girl — would cost nearly as much as she would earn after taxes, she left the workforce to become a stay-at-home mom.

Full-time care on Oahu for a toddler like hers can cost as much as $1,300 a month, Hall discovered. Add on the $120 monthly bill that she and her husband, a car salesman, pay for their daughter’s after-school care. Throw in the daily meals and other miscellaneous expenses for the kids. In all, the family would be paying about $18,000 a year on care for the two children.

When Hall worked, her family’s annual income was about $86,000 before taxes, meaning that child care would have consumed a quarter of the family’s net earnings.

So, after having her son, Hall didn’t look for a new job. She decided to spend her days caring for the infant herself. Not paying for child care clearly saved the family money and she was able to be more present in the baby’s life, but it means the family of four is entirely dependent on her husband’s salary of $51,000.

Hall says she won’t return to the workforce until she gets a teaching job that pays enough for the family to afford outside toddler care.

“I have a magic number in my head that I have to earn for it to be worth it,” Hall said. She wants a salary that is about equal to what her husband earns, but so far she hasn’t had any luck.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hawaii is among the most expensive states when it comes to child care — particularly infant and toddler care at a center and after-school care for older children.

Center-based infant care in Hawaii in 2012, the most recent year for which complete data is available, cost about $12,500 on average, or more than 14 percent of the median income for married couples and 44 percent of the median income for single mothers, according to a report by the national clearinghouse Child Care Aware of America.

That makes Hawaii the eighth most-expensive state for infant care.

Infant Care Vs. University

There are many reasons why life in Hawaii is so expensive, from rent and gas to electricity and food staples like milk. But child care is also a key component.

Parents who fear they won’t be able to save up for their children’s university studies are unlikely to take much comfort from a surprising fact: many of them pay more for infant care than college students pay for in-state tuition and fees at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

They pay 44 percent more, to be exact.

Hawaii is one of 31 states where infant care costs exceed those of attending a public college.

Infant care costs in Hawaii vary greatly depending on the area. In fact, Hawaii has the widest cost disparity in the country between urban and rural care centers, with families in Honolulu paying about 150 percent more annually for infant care than families in more remote areas.

That’s in part because people in urban areas have higher incomes and there is a greater demand for such care, according to Gale Flynn, an early childhood educator who currently directs the preschool program at Waianae’s Kamaile Academy.

While Oahu is home to 610 child-care centers and preschools, including small-scale family operations, Kauai has just 80.

Other types of child care are pricey too.

Hawaii is the second most-expensive state for after-school care, which cost an average of $8,900 in 2012. Preschool for 4 year olds — which cost an average of $8,200 in 2012 — is also expensive, though that is the case nationwide. Hawaii ranks around the middle of the 50 states for preschool affordability.

Tough Choices

Such costs help to explain why so many parents sacrifice employment to take child care into their own hands.

Kailua resident Erin Studt, a middle-class married mother of two, decided to quit her job as a teacher in order to care for her 2-year-old daughter.

“When we did the math, what I was bringing home was essentially paying for day care,” said Studt, adding that she and her husband would’ve had to pay $1,500 a month if they were to enroll both their toddler and 4-year-old son in child care. Now, only their son is in outside care — a small preschool that costs about $7,000 a year.

“It’s unfortunate because I crave having that independence of having work,” said Studt, who taught at Kaelepulu Elementary, which is a public school. “It took a lot to adjust to having a routine here (at home).”

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The cost of child care forces many other parents to resort to cheap, and sometimes free, alternatives — grandma or grandpa’s house or the unlicensed nanny down the street — that aren’t always ideal for children’s development.

Leilani Napoleon is a 39-year-old single mother of three from Honolulu who lives paycheck to paycheck.

The $33,000 she nets annually as a human resources manager isn’t enough to cover the basics, says Napoleon, who’s currently in remission after being diagnosed with cancer several years ago. Most of her salary — $20,000 of it — goes to rent, while the rest goes to other expenses such as food, gas and especially medical bills.

Napoleon can hardly afford the $65 it costs each month for her 10-year-old daughter’s after-school care so taking on additional bills for her 9-month-old son is out of the question. Despite her circumstances, Napoleon says she doesn’t qualify for government child-care subsidies.

“There are those who can afford (child care), and those who cannot,” Napoleon said. “Even though I make … money, I’m still in the ‘cannot.’”

So she leaves her infant with a friend who agreed to babysit for $25 a day, but that arrangement is just a short-term solution. Napoleon would like to enroll her child in something more structured down the line, but she can’t afford it.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Given that more than 65 percent of parents with young children in Hawaii are employed, arrangements such as Napoleon’s are common. But they can limit a child’s development. Hall and Studt are licensed, experienced teachers and structure their time with their toddlers as any quality early childhood educator might, but many other parents don’t know how to create such a constructive environment.

Experts say that 85 percent of a child’s brain develops before age 3, and research suggests that children who benefit from quality child care and preschool education are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to commit crimes and rely on social programs.

Still, more than two out of every five children entering kindergarten in Hawaii have never had any prior education or high-quality child care.

Demand, Operational Expenses Drive Up Costs

It isn’t entirely clear why child care in Hawaii is so expensive, though early education advocates and providers point to supply-and-demand economics, not to mention other expenses — like utilities and rent — that make living in Hawaii so pricey in general.

“I don’t think there’s a nice, easy answer that we could say with certainty,” said David Okamura, an associate director at PATCH Hawaii, a child-care resource and referral agency.

But when it comes to infant care, he said, licensing regulations can really inflate costs because they require such low teacher-to-child ratios: one adult for every two babies who are 18 months or younger. That means staffing costs for centers serving infants can really add up. Nationally, the average income of a full-time child-care professional in 2012 was $21,310.

There are also relatively few infant-care centers. Kauai, Lanai and Molokai don’t have any; the Big Island has eight, Maui has nine and Oahu has 47, according to data from PATCH.

“Care for infants in our community is a Catch-22,” Okamura said.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Flynn, of Kamaile Academy, said infant care costs are a national problem because centers typically prioritize older children.

“There simply isn’t enough infant care, so most families depend on a relative, or a babysitter,” Flynn said. “That leads to quality issues during a critical development period.”

In general, child care and preschool providers rely almost entirely on tuition because they receive no government funding. The result: higher costs.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool program, which places a greater financial burden on parents.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie is pushing for a statewide early education system, but the initiative has struggled to advance because of the expected price tag.

So far, the Legislature has agreed to set aside $3 million for a plan to develop free preschool classrooms at some public schools and $6 million to expand the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors subsidy program.

But that’s nowhere near the $31 million Abercrombie sought last year. And though the idea, ultimately, is to create a comprehensive early learning system that incorporates private and public preschool classrooms, much of that vision hinges on whether votes approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to use public money for private providers. That question is being placed on this year’s ballot.

That leaves preschools and child-care providers in a position where most must charge a lot of money for their services, particularly because that revenue has to cover every operational cost — from rent to teachers’ salaries. That also partially explains why child care in Honolulu is so much more expensive than it is in, say, West Hawaii: pricier facilities and greater access to highly qualified, trained professionals.

Honolulu is also home to wealthier people, Flynn added, who are simply able to pay more, if they feel they have to.

Whereas child care in Honolulu costs about $1,160 per month on average, in West Hawaii it is $338 per month, according to Okamura.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Cheryl Cudiamat owns and operates Keiki Care Center of Hawaii, a preschool and day care in Pearl City that charges about $750 a month per child. That money, she says, has to cover all of the center’s operations, which have a price tag of about $600,000 annually.

She pointed to the need to fairly compensate highly qualified professionals and the exceptionally high cost of their health insurance — her second greatest expense. Cudiamat says she spends $5,000 a month on her employees’ health insurance because most of them are older women.

Cudiamat also stressed that she requires her main teachers to have a bachelor’s degree or higher in education, a qualification that comes with a higher price tag. And day-care centers and preschools tend to keep their teacher-to-child ratios low — about six children for every adult — meaning that they have to keep their staffing levels high.

Government Funding?

Limited financial aid and other government supports are available for select families that qualify, but many parents either don’t make the cut or for whatever reason fail to apply for the resources.

Preschool Open Doors, a need-based subsidy program, has strict income requirements and is limited to a once-a-year application period.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14 playing

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The program currently serves 325 children whose average annual family income is about $20,700, according to Department of Human Services data. The average subsidy amount is $407 a month. Next school year, the program will likely expand to serve another 900 or so children.

Another subsidy program, Child Care Connections, sets aside some child-care money for low-income families — but only if the parents are working.

The federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs are also an option, but they have long waiting lists and are earmarked for very poor children.

Many working-class and middle-income parents such as Napoleon, Studt and Hall don’t qualify for the programs.

“I know families that have great jobs — doctors, lawyers, physical therapists — but they just can’t afford it,” Cudiamat said.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Advocates say a public early learning system would significantly bring down child-care and preschool costs. Others want to expand subsidy programs to support middle-income families — another facet of Abercrombie’s initiative.

Meanwhile, free child-care programs such as parent-participation preschools are another option, but they typically require a parent or family member to attend with the child, which is often not possible.

The high costs in Hawaii are making Napoleon, the mother of three, contemplate leaving the state to raise her children on the mainland. Child care would be cheaper and she could likely earn more.

“I just don’t know if I can afford it anymore,” she said.

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