) -- The cost of child care is the single largest expense for families in almost half of the states in the nation and has been growing steadily, outweighing costs of food and housing.

The cost of infant day care rose by 2.7% and preschool rose by 2.6% from 2011 to last year, according to

a report from Child Care Aware of America based on data by the State Child Care Resource and Referral Network and local agencies


One of the most surprising findings, though: The cost of infant day care now surpasses that of in-state tuition for four-year public colleges in 31 states.

Putting two children into full-time center care is now the largest expense for households in the Northeastern, Midwestern and Southern regions of the country.

"Child care is an increasingly difficult financial burden for working families to bear," said Lynette M. Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America, in a

press release

. "Unlike all other areas of education investment, including higher education, families pay the majority of costs for early education. Too many families are finding it impossible to access and afford quality child care that doesn't jeopardize children's safety and healthy development."

Also see: Half Our Public School Students Are Officially Poor>>

Infant care now exceeds annual median rent payments in 22 states and the District of Columbia, with day care for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old) estimated at more than the annual median rent payments in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

TheStreet Recommends

Center-based child care fees for two children was found to be more expensive than a mortgage and associated housing costs in 20 states. And whether parents rented or owned, putting an infant in child care for a year cost more than what most families spend on food annually in every region of the country.

The average yearly cost of full-time day care varies wildly by state. For a 4-year-old it averaged only $3,900 in Mississippi, but was $11,700 in Massachusetts, whereas for an infant it was $4,600 and $15,000 respectively.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the benchmark cap for affordable child care is 10% of a family's annual income. Yet couples with infants were found to be spending that in more than half of the states and at times consuming as much as 19% of a married couple's income. Single parents suffered much more, many times spending upward of a quarter of their yearly income.

Things do not look like they are going to get better anytime soon.

With recent budget cuts in federal aid programs for low-income families and the recent expiration of recession-era increases in food stamp benefits, which has affected about 23 million households, it looks like the burden of child care in the U.S. is on the path to become much heavier.

Also see: How Our $7B a Year Lets Fast Food Companies Pay Minimum Wage>>

The recent

sequestration cuts

have subtracted some $69 million from public assistance programs that either directly subsidize or at least help defray the cost of child care. Head Start, a publicly subsidized preschool program for low-income families, recently kicked thousands of children off its rolls. And Congress is considering billions of dollars in additional cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Among its list of recommendations, Child Care Aware of America proposes that Congress should reauthorize the

Child Care and Development Block Grant

that helps subsidize child care for low-income families. According to the report, almost half of the states have waiting lists for the program, and only about 17% of eligible families are actually able to get child care subsidies.

It also recommends that reauthorization of the grant should include investments in child care resource and referral agencies to help child care providers get and keep their licenses, and that the Department of Health and Human Services get states to remove barriers keeping families from easy access to aid for child care -- and that the federal government should commission the National Academy of Sciences to do its own study on the cost of child care and come up with a set of recommendations.

"We call on federal and state policy-makers to make child care a top priority when working on budgets, particularly in light of looming January cuts," Fraga said in a press release. "We also call on parents, concerned citizens and early care and education professionals to urge federal and state legislators to address the high cost of child care."