Putting two kids in a center costs families more than what they typically spend on food and, in much of the country, on housing. In 28 states and Washington, D.C., sending an infant to day care costs more than sending an 18-year-old to public college. The price tag has been climbing at an extraordinary rate: The cost for families with a working mother rose 70 percent between 1985 and 2012.

American childcare is expensive, dangerous, and unreliable. Kids and parents are paying a steep price.

There's a consensus that K-12 education is a public good, says Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. But we thrust younger kids into a market-based system with just a smattering of public funds. Nearly all the money for early education has to come from parents. "You can't fund this on parents alone and support a high-quality, well-paid staff," Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center, says. If there's not enough coming into the system, then pay and standards have to be lowered.

Even families who can afford child care might not be able to get it, as Gonzalez found out when she was offered the marketing job. Many centers are simply full; in other places, they don't exist. In a study of eight states, the Center for American Progress found that more than 40 percent of children live in what it calls "child care deserts," or zip codes where there are either no day care centers or more than three times as many children under the age of five as there are available spots.

Your chances of getting a high-quality program for even six hours a day at [age] four are less than one in ten," says W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Research on the impact of high-quality care for young children, meanwhile, has only gotten clearer. Barnett, the National Institute for Early Education Research director, has reviewed more than 100 studies of the effects of high-quality care and found big cognitive gains that last. Doing what we do now, on the other hand—neglecting kids or leaving it up to overworked parents—has concrete disadvantages. "It is certainly possible for poor-quality care to harm kids," Barnett says.

Read the full article about the cost of childcare by Bryce Covert at ELLE Magazine.