In the United States, per-child spending doubled from the 1970s to the 2000s, according to a 2013 paper by Sabino Kornich of the University of Sydney and Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania. Parents spent more on education, toys, and games. But nothing grew faster than per-child spending on child care, which increased by a factor of 21—or approximately 2,000 percent—in those 40 years.
Although wrapping your head around 2,000 percent growth might be difficult, the underlying cause isn’t so mysterious. As more women entered the labor force in the late 20th century, the work of caring for infants moved from the unpaid world of stay-at-home parents to the world of salaried labor. The 1970s and ’80s—the two decades when the female labor participation rate grew the fastest—also saw the greatest acceleration in child-care spending, according to Kornich and Furstenberg. Raising young children is work—and it always has been work—but the rise of dual-earner households has forced more families to recognize this work with their wallets.