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More than half of Missouri's children lack affordable access to child care

February 18, 2018 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated January 29, 2020 at 2:41 a.m.
Jariah Stewart crawls across the infant room floor at Stepping Stones Preschool. Behind her is Brysen Hughes. Both are one-year-olds in the infant care program.

Tami Hughes' Monday morning is harder than yours.

Or maybe not, if you have young children in Jefferson City.

A single parent and working student, Hughes' weekday routine - planned around a 7 a.m. nursing class - would be hard enough if her son and daughter were enrolled at the same child care center.

"Monday through Thursday, I leave my house at 6 and I drop my daughter off at her day care at 6:15, and then I go across town and drop my son off at 6:30," she said last fall. "I am literally, like, in the parking lot at 6:25, they unlock the door, I hand over my son and leave. I don't even walk in the building. And then I go all the way to Linn, and I still don't make it to class on time."

It wasn't always so complicated.

Hughes initially returned to her job at Kmart four weeks postpartum, with a place reserved for Brysen at the center where Shayla was enrolled. But after Kmart closed its Jefferson City store and Hughes kept her children at home for the three months she was between jobs, finding a similar situation wasn't so easy.

"There was one day care in town that had an infant opening, so I put both of my children in that day care. And then when my daughter started pre-K in August, there were no day cares that would transport to pre-K," she said. "So when I finally found one that would transport, I had to move her and keep him there because the new day care didn't have an infant opening. So now I have two kids in two separate day cares on different sides of town."

With limited child care options - especially for infants - it took Hughes a couple of stressful months to secure a slot for 8-month-old Brysen to join sister Shayla, 4, at one center. Brysen is 13 months old now, and Shayla attends pre-K part time at Southwest Early Childhood Center.

Licensed and known license-exempt child care facilities in Cole County offer capacity of 2,682 spots for 4,032 children under age 6 with working parents as of February 2018, according to data compiled by Child Care Aware of Missouri, a statewide resource and referral agency that contracts with the Department of Social Services.

That accounts for two-thirds of preschool-age children whose parents work, meaning working families find other arrangements for over 1,300 more children.

With such a stark disparity, would you believe Cole County ranks No. 1 among Missouri counties for available licensed child care in University of Missouri Institute of Public Policy's most recent report to the Women's Foundation?

Cole County certainly offers more options than neighboring counties like Callaway, Miller and Moniteau, whose licensed and known license-exempt capacity accounts for less than half their population of children under 6 with working parents.

All mirror a statewide pattern: Missouri's licensed child care capacity accounts for only 48 percent of the state's infant and preschool-age children whose parents work, according to a 2014 report from Child Care Aware.

The issue isn't just one of convenience.

"It's not only just about families who are trying to address their own needs, but this is a workforce issue," said Robin Phillips, chief executive officer of Child Care Aware of Missouri. "When parents feel at ease of where their child is at during a time that the child is not with them, then that family member is more productive, more attentive, less likely to call in sick, less likely to be absent - and having that employee there and present and productive has an impact on that company's bottom line."

Risky business

An August 2017 report from the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan progressive policy institute, noted 55 percent of Missouri's population lives in a child care desert - any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 where there are at least three times as many children as licensed child care slots.

Except for the heart of Jefferson City, much of Cole and surrounding counties is in one of those deserts.

"There's obviously a gap there. Especially in our more micropolitan to rural areas, it's harder to find," Phillips said.

Of those in Missouri's child care deserts, 51.8 percent live in suburban areas and 41 percent in rural, the report notes, adding: "Child care supply is especially low in Missouri's rural areas, where 71 percent of residents live in areas without enough licensed child care providers."

The report classifies Jefferson City as suburban, with much of Cole and surrounding counties considered rural.

The 0-2 age range presents the biggest challenges because of stricter licensing requirements and higher costs.

Census data estimates there were 2,740 children ages 0-2 in Cole County in 2016. As of February 2018, centers, group homes and family homes in the county account for 506 licensed and 57 license-exempt infant/toddler spaces, according to data from the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

Hughes said she tried five to 10 centers in Jefferson City before finding an open infant spot.

Virginia Kremer, a nurse, began calling local child care centers shortly after she learned she was pregnant in May 2016, with a January 2017 due date, putting her name on 12-15 wait lists before signing on with a center that had just opened. If she and her husband hadn't found anything, she was prepared to forgo the paycheck and the interaction she enjoys with her patients.

"You basically have to be put on the list before you know that you're having a baby," Kremer said. "Most of them said nothing (was available) until December 2018."

She's not exaggerating.

"If somebody finds out they're pregnant, they need to be looking then, immediately, because there isn't hardly anything. My next opening here isn't until late next year," Paula Stallings, who owns and operates Stepping Stones Preschool and Precious Gems Academy in Jefferson City, said last fall.

This past October, she started a new client who had been waiting since October 2016.

With 80 licensed child care programs in Cole County, how can the supply be so short?

"It's a funding issue. And I think it's a funding issue from the parents' resources to what the business has to cover in their overhead and cost," Phillips said.

Child care centers are salary-heavy businesses. State licensing requirements are partially responsible.

"Salaries take 70 percent of our budget at least. That's a big part of our budget, and any child care center is going to be like that because we are labor-intensive," said Donna Scheidt, executive director of Little Explorers Discovery Center, the recently renamed nonprofit Jefferson City Day Care Center.

While a teacher in Little Explorers' 5-year-old room can watch 16 children, an infant/toddler teacher legally can care for only four.

"The cost of that care is four times as much as the cost of my 5-year-old care," Scheidt said. "The cost of infant/toddler care is why centers don't have more: we just can't afford to."

The same is true for any licensed facility.

"With infants, there's a lot more you're having to do - feedings, diaper changing, rocking, and all of those quality services that should be provided to that child," Phillips explained.

Centers must provide adequate space: 35 square feet of usable floor space per child - 45 per infant - excluding kitchens, bathrooms, closets, staff lounges, offices and hallways, as well as space occupied by permanently placed cots or beds.

"You can have up to eight babies in a room only if the square footage allows," Stallings said. "Any kind of furniture that the children can use also counts into the square footage, so if I have beds against the wall, all the square footage is still used. My cabinets that they can get into and play with everything on the bottom shelves, that square footage is counted into that also."

Those hefty costs kept Stallings from trying to address the need for infant/toddler care by separating her two centers into one for infants - Precious Gems Academy could have accommodated 16, as opposed to Stallings' current 12 across both centers - and one for ages 2 and up. But it just doesn't compute.

"The cost compared to my older children is quite significantly different because two infants pay for one employee a day," she said.

At $170 a week, 16 infants would bring in $2,720 a week and $10,880 a month. Four employees to care for those infants, paid at $10.50 an hour for eight hours a day, would cost $6,720 a month before taxes. That's hoping the remaining $3,000 or so covers food costs and other bills.

"The overhead just isn't there for it - that's the only issue - unless you raise your rates by $10-$20 per child," Stallings said.

Instead, she plans to invest in renovating Stepping Stones' basement to enroll another 16 infants, bringing the preschool's total to 20, by early summer.

"Here, the overhead's taken care of except employees," she said last week - another week during which she took nearly 20 calls from expecting parents.

Licensing regulations, under the authority of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, also require safe sleep training for all caregivers every three years and 12 hours of child-care training annually.

A new federal law effective October 2016 requires child care providers to complete training on specific health and safety topics in addition to pediatric first aid and CPR to be eligible to receive child care subsidy payments through the Child Care Development Fund.

"There's just a million and one rules, and it's hard to catch them all," Scheidt said.

With no clear solutions in sight, every little bit helps.

Growing Hearts Montessori, which opened in 2015, plans to open its infant center on Scotts Station Road in mid-March, adding another 16 infant/toddler spots.

"The community needs it, and it's something we really want to do, and we feel like infant Montessori education is lacking in Jefferson City," Director Jason Richards said. "We have parents of students in our facility currently that just had children, and they're ready to put them in our care."

Richards said community interest has risen swiftly, with several family interviews already scheduled. "Our phone has been ringing off the hook."

Cost-prohibitive care

Centers aren't the only ones bearing the burden of high child care costs.

In many states, the average cost of infant care is higher than a year's tuition at a four-year public university, according to Child Care Aware of America.

Cost is the most commonly reported challenge parents face when looking for child care, according to a 2016 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Weekly child care costs in Cole County range from an average of $112 for ages 4-5 to $159 for infants ages birth to 1, according to Child Care Aware data. In Stallings' experience, infant care is closer to $170-190 a week. Monthly child care center bills can easily top $600-$700 for one child.

"The whole magic bullet question that our country faces is the affordability of it," Phillips said.

Various community supports exist to help families piece together the finances.

Little Explorers Discovery Center, a United Way of Central Missouri partner agency, works specifically to offer accredited child care that low- and middle-income families can afford. Its sliding-fee scale sets costs in five fee categories based on family size and income, with families paying anywhere from $65-150 a week per child.

"Some families pay the full cost because they do not need to be subsidized by the United Way, but many of our families are what we'd classify the 'working poor' - families who work either one or two jobs and make minimum wage or close to minimum wage," Scheidt said.

The nonprofit center is licensed to care for 99 children, including 20 infant/toddler slots.

For two years, Central Missouri Community Action's Cole County Family Resource Center has offered people at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level one-time assistance up to $1,000 to help them catch up on past-due child care bills.

"The challenges for people who are working is if one little thing happens, then they get behind in their child care (payments) because first they're thinking about having their rent and their food paid for," CMCA Family Development Supervisor Judy Widner said.

That program distributed more than $45,000 toward families' child care registration and co-pays since July 2014. It ended in December after Jefferson City stopped awarding Community Development Block Grant funds, the CMCA program's funding source.

The most common form of child care support, Missouri's Child Care Subsidy Program, offers financial assistance for parents of children under 13 who are working, attending school or meet other requirements. The program's combination of state and federal funding is distributed through the Department of Social Services.

The subsidy program pays the state rate, which varies by county, for daily care depending on the family's schedule. In Cole County, the rate is $29.78 for a full day of infant care at a licensed center, $17.17 for preschool. That adds up to nearly $150 for a five-day week of infant care for those who qualify.

Lower reimbursement rates are offered for group homes and family homes.

In November 2017, the most recent month's data, 477 households with 600 children in Cole County received some level of state child care assistance - 343 of them with parents working, in school or in job training, according to Missouri Department of Social Services data. Cole County families received $213,722 of the over $2.5 million in child care subsidies distributed statewide in November.

Often the people who struggle most to pay for child care are those whose income is just above the low-income measure to receive state assistance.

"They fall through the crack," Widner said. "If you're just above that income level, the resources just aren't there sometimes."

Seeking solutions

Much of the policy conversation around child care has shifted toward quality in early childhood education.

A child's brain develops to about 80 percent of its adult size by age 3 - 90 percent by age 5, according to Zero to Three, an organization that works to support healthy development for babies and toddlers. Early childhood's many critical periods in brain development mean a child's experience of various environmental stimuli contributes to the neural synapses that allow him or her to learn language, undergo normal visual development and more.

But quality is difficult to address when quantity looms as a first hurdle.

"As we increase the quality of child care, one of the ways you increase quality is by hiring more qualified staff, and more qualified staff costs more money," said Judy Dungan, former director of policy and advocacy for Kids Win Missouri, a coalition that works for legislative policy to support children's well-being in Missouri. "It drives a lot of that child care underground to unlicensed providers that aren't even necessarily operating under the law."

The United Way of Central Missouri, which started its Early Childhood Initiative in 2005, identified infant/toddler care as an acute local need back in 2007. Theresa Verslues, the local United Way's vice president who oversees the initiative, confirmed the need remains relatively unchanged from a decade ago.

"There's not a clear solution," added Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation, which ranked child care as the top economic concern for women and families after a series of focus groups. "This is such an economic challenge and something that I think we will continue to try to shine some light on."

The federally funded Early Head Start program, administered locally through CMCA, is doing its part to help address the need, adding 16 new infant/toddler slots with the opening of its Cole East Head Start renovation in summer 2017.

"We do have the flexibility in funding to decide: Do we want to open up more preschool slots or do we want to open up more infant/toddler slots?" said Kishia Brown, site administrator at Cole East Head Start. "The public school is providing a lot more preschool slots, so for us it was clear we need to do the infant/toddler program."

As Head Start works specifically to help families get out of poverty, the program is available only for those who meet federal low-income guidelines.

"In terms of availability, I think part of it is the business model and part of it is just the way policy is moving," Dungan said. "The business model has gotten different for a lot of child care centers as school districts have been more and more focused on adding pre-K to their curriculums."

Most child care centers essentially subsidize their infant care by offsetting it with enough preschool slots, which are less expensive to provide.

"As those 3- and 4-year-olds move into the school district for pre-K, then that puts their business model upside-down," Dungan said.

Kids Win Missouri has supported legislation the past couple of years that would allow child care centers to contract with public school districts to provide pre-K. State Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, has filed similar legislation for the 2018 legislative session.

Such collaborative relationships would allow school districts and child care programs to leverage the assets of each, perhaps to offer joint staff development or to introduce school district curriculum at younger ages.

"We pursue that for good policy reasons for kids, but it would help local child care providers to be able to continue to stay in business," Dungan said.

United Way also has worked to address staffing issues in the Jefferson City area by providing easier access to training.

"What we found is a lot of our early childhood providers had to go elsewhere or go to Columbia" for training, Verslues said.

Traveling for 12 hours of annual training sounds less feasible if you're leaving work after 5:30 p.m. for a 6 p.m. training 30 miles away.

"When you're trying to run a day care center and you're open before we go to work and you close after we get off work, their hours are so much longer," Verslues explained.

Since 2009, United Way has worked primarily with Child Care Aware to facilitate free training in Jefferson City.

Child Care Aware also has broadened its mission to provide what child care professionals need to thrive.

"Many of these business owners struggle to run the business piece of the business," Phillips said. "I think it's important for those who want to open those types of businesses that there's resources available to them and support and coaching available to them so that they're successful."

For example, Child Care Aware, with funding from the departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Social Services, operates the T.E.A.C.H. Missouri program to offer scholarships for child care professionals to continue their education, with the goal of helping address the field's low compensation and helping providers retain qualified employees.

"It takes parents, it takes community members, it takes business leaders, it takes other entities, it takes legislators, it takes everybody to make this change," Phillips said. "Until everyone is on board with the value of early childhood education and the impact it has on those early years, we will continue to have that conversation."


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