No Affordable Childcare for Postdocs

Talking about money is bad form. But money is a language everyone understands. So let’s talk money.

The low income of young researchers, their temporary contracts, and required high mobility have often been lamented, for example recently by the National Academy of Sciences, in Science Magazine, in the Scientific American, in the Boston Globe, and very entertainingly in Issues. As a postdoctoral research fellow, my net income is $2,700 per month. My gross income of $45,000 per year puts me just above the de facto national standard pay for postdocs of $42,000. Having a Ph.D., my gross annual income is slightly less than the median income of 24 to 34 year-olds with Bachelor’s degrees. The median income of those with a Master’s degree exceeds my income by one third.

So much about the income side; now the expenses. That is easy. If I had a child, there would be a single item on my expense list. My net income equals the full-time child care costs for one infant or one and a half pre-schoolers at one of the six child care centers on Harvard campus. Rent, health insurance, retirement savings? Food? You better find yourself a well-earning spouse. A spouse that stays home with the children is not going to suffice. In that case, the single item on your expense list is going to be your rent. The rent for a two bedroom apartment hovers around $2,500 per month in Cambridge or surrounding areas. Prices for Harvard housing range from $2,100 to $3,100 per month for a two-bedroom residence. A spouse who is a postdoc herself or himself is not going to do the trick either. Rent and full-time child care for an infant would pretty much consume two postdocs’ incomes.

Are you thinking that it cannot be that bad, that I must be missing something? Maybe I could apply for financial assistance? In fact, I can. Harvard awards Child Care Scholarships that reimburse up to $7,500 of child care costs. A year. Taxed at 40 percent. At the very best, that lowers the monthly costs of Harvard-affiliated infant care by just $375 or around 14 percent.

The solution is to keep your child as far from Harvard campus as possible. Community child care centers and licensed care providers who watch after the little ones at their home cost less than Harvard-affiliated or other private child care centers. The cost of a licensed care provider averages $1,400 per month in Cambridge and $1,200 per month in Somerville. Great, that is only half of my net income. Assuming that my spouse would pay half the child care cost and rent, we had only one child (beware of twins!), and I spent $15 per day for food, that would leave me with roughly $500 per month to pay for health insurance (roughly $100), utilities, cell phone–oh, and the baby’s needs. With strict budgeting, we could just manage.

In its benefits brochure for postdocs, Harvard proudly boasts that it “has invested over $10 million in child care infrastructure, and commits over $4 million per year to ongoing dependent care programs and services.” In reality, these facilities do not cater to the whole Harvard community, but mainly to the established who earn the salary that Harvard is not willing to pay its postdocs. Without a second job or a well-earning partner, the most highly educated two percent of 25-34 year-olds at the nation’s leading academic institution can barely afford even one child.


Frauke Hoss is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.


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