BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- 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."
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. 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.