Infant care in 2011 cost more than $11,000 per year on average, more than the annual cost of tuition at some state colleges, the report by The New Jersey Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies says.

The high cost, experts said, is not just a financial issue for families but an economic factor in getting New Jersey residents back to work. Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties are among the least affordable areas because incomes are proportionally lower.

“We can make a case that this affects the entire state because the economy won’t grow if we can’t keep these people in the workplace,” said Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, R-Monmouth, who hosted a forum in Atlantic City last month on improving opportunities for working women.

Rebekka Zydel, president of the association, said that, overall, there are enough child care centers and services, but the cost can be as high as $300 per week.

“The big issue is affordability,” Zydel said.

Vouchers are available for low-income families, but the waiting list earlier this year exceeded 10,000 statewide, show data compiled by Advocates for Children of New Jersey. In May, the state Department of Human Services allocated an additional $7.2 million for child care vouchers, which is expected to accommodate about 4,114 slots, still leaving waiting lists in every county.

Income eligibility is no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $37,060 for family of three. Families lose their subsidy if their income reaches 250 percent. Amounts are based on income and family size, but even the maximum amount covers only about 75 percent of the cost.

“Providers can require parents to make up the difference,” Zydel said. “No provider can afford to operate just on vouchers.”

Claudia Ratzlaff of The Women’s Center in Linwood, the Child Care Resource and Referral Agency serving Atlantic County, said the waiting list for a subsidy approached 800 before the additional funding came in. She expects $484,000 the county received to assist about 275 families.

“We have been going through the waiting list to see how many are still interested and eligible,” she said.

Statewide, about 16,350 children received child care vouchers in 2011 at a cost of $68.5 million. The state budget includes $66.5 million for 16,578 children in 2013. Other funds are also available, with almost 50,000 children statewide getting some type of child care assistance.

According to the report’s data, in 2011 there were 2,123 children in Atlantic County receiving a voucher. There were 218 subsidized children in Cape May County, 732 in Cumberland County and 971 in Ocean County.

In Atlantic County, the average center cost was almost $200 a week for infants and $160 per week for preschoolers ages 3 to 5. On average, families paid 19 percent of their household income on infant care, and 16 percent on child care — making Atlantic County the least affordable in the state for child care.

The percentage of income spent on child care increased to 26 percent for female-headed households.

Cape May County ranked second statewide with 16 percent of household income spent on child care. Ocean County was fifth at nearly 16 percent and Cumberland County was seventh at 14 percent.

Center owners said they have tried to accomodate families, but the state-licensed and regulated centers are expensive to operate. The state requires one adult for every four infants, and there are insurance, security and environmental requirements that can be costly.

“We see people struggling to pay the co-payment,” said William Beyers who with his wife, Janice Barbarito, operates six Barbarito and Beyers preschools in South Jersey and has been in business for 33 years. “ But we can’t afford to just take the voucher. It’s really not fair to expect those who are paying the full cost to subsidize the others.”

He said about 25 percent to 30 percent of their families get a voucher.

Terri Boyer, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University said the cost of child care is one of the largest factors in a woman’s decision to return to work after having a child.

While child care is still viewed as a woman’s issue, she said, it is really a family issue and that argument must be stressed to bring more attention to the overall effect on society. Employers can help through flexible hours or subsidies, she said, though some that have tried on-site centers have found they don’t always succeed because every family’s needs are different.

Beyers said one of their most affordable sites is at Atlantic Cape Community College’s Mays Landing Campus because the college lease is very reasonable. The center caters primarily to college employees and students, but is also open to the general public.

AtlantiCare closed the center at its Mainland Division in Galloway Township in June because of the cost and the fact that less than half of the participants were employees, spokesman Jennifer Tornetta said.

About 20 of the families went over to KidAcademy in Absecon, where former AtlantiCare director Tara Costantini now works. The center offers infant and child care and she said many parents choose a center based on convenience and cost.

“Parents will make the decision based on who comes in the cheapest rather than the program they are offering,” she said. She’s seen parents who continue to work even though almost all of their paycheck goes to child care because they don’t want to lose their health care benefits.

Boyer praised Casagrande for addressing the issue but said there is no easy answer.

James Pratt at Cornell University called child care an iceberg issue in a 2009 report because all the public sees is the tip, or the paid child care centers. The unseen market includes family, friends and neighbors who take care of a child or two.

The mother of two young children, Casagrande said people without children have no idea how expensive child care is and the impact of that cost on the entire family.

“We want to show that this is not just a woman’s issue,” she said. “We need to make it everyone’s issue.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241