This unexpected cost is another insult to working parents (and is totally fixable)
Childcare waitlist fees can leave parents out hundreds of dollars, and creates a major barrier for lower-income families in accessing hard to come by spots. But states can offer a solution.
Searching for an open childcare slot can be torturous, and for too many parents the process involves an extra indignity: they must pay a fee to sit on a waitlist they are unlikely to get off. Putting in for multiple waitlists in a desperate attempt to increase the odds can leave parents out many hundreds of dollars, and creates a major barrier for lower-income families. Recently, British Columbia became the latest Canadian province to ban childcare programs that receive public money from collecting waitlist fees. American states should follow suit by capping fees, if not banning them outright.
Waitlists are unfortunately a fact of life in the neglected American childcare system, which is miscast as what Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls a “textbook example of a failed market.” With meager public money in the system and crippling staffing shortages, there simply isn’t enough supply to go around. An analysis commissioned by the news site The 19th found that between February 2020 and February 2023, the average waitlist length at the analyzed child care centers rose 28% and now stands at a whopping 236 children.
Unlike a deposit that holds a slot or even an application fee that hypothetically covers the time spent to give tours and process that application, nonrefundable waitlist fees are more like paying for the right to be at the back of a very long line—or for a lottery ticket. Fees can vary from $20 to $200. As one mother, Jess Simmons, shared with me, “I spent more on [childcare] waitlist fees for each of my children than I did for college application fees and never got a call from any of them.” The process can be frustratingly opaque; there are no requirements that programs tell parents where they are on the waiting list, and programs themselves often have little control over how fast the list moves because it can depend on factors like an enrolled family moving away.
To be clear, most childcare programs (arguably with the exception of large for-profit corporate chains) are not charging waitlist fees in order to line their own pockets. Perhaps the best argument for the fees, and the one programs themselves commonly offer, is that maintaining waitlists comes with administrative costs, and fees create a disincentive for parents just signing up for as many waitlists as possible. The latter can be a problem since parents generally won’t call to remove themselves upon acquiring a spot somewhere else, which ends up wasting programs’ already-limited time. Moreover, faced with grim budget numbers and gossamer-thin margins, some programs are grasping for any dollars they can to keep the lights on. That said, plenty of programs have no waitlist fees and their absence does not appear to be a major burden.
A natural solution would be to couple a prohibition on waitlist fees with an increase in public funding. Notably, British Columbia’s ban comes amid Canada investing huge amounts into building a “$10 a day” system; just this year, B.C. received nearly $400 million in federal funds. Officials there say they will supplement existing monthly payments to providers to help them cover new administrative costs. WIth major federal investments in the U.S. unlikely anytime soon, an alternative option would be to cap the fees, such as at a maximum of $20 per family. This could be easily accomplished through current licensure and subsidy systems.
While not the biggest problem facing American families or American child care, a cap or ban on waitlist fees would remove a headache and take a small step in the name of fairness. It would also help strengthen bonds of solidarity between parents and providers, both of whom are having the screws tightened on them by elected leaders’ refusal to fully fund a functional system. Parents and providers need to link arms and use their voices to make the case that childcare is not an individual problem but one with deep resonances for family and community flourishing. However, it’s difficult to exercise collective power when one group feels taken advantage of by the other.
The path toward an effective childcare system that works for parents, providers, and kids is likely to be a long and arduous one. Indeed, the whole reason such long waitlists exist is due to a supply crunch from the lack of public funding; for all the flaws of American public education, there is no waitlist for one’s neighborhood school. Capping or banning waitlist fees isn’t an answer to decades of child care policy failures, but can at least make the path a little smoother.