‘There’s never been enough’: Long-standing child care crisis deepens amid pandemic

As businesses tell their employees to head back to the office, many Missourians are running into a problem long-intertwined with employment: child care.

The child care business has been in crisis for decades, but the pandemic brought the industry to its knees. More parents were working from home, reducing demand for child care. Then, as vaccination rates increased, employers asked parents to return to in-person work, creating a sudden spike in demand for which a severely short-staffed industry was unprepared.

Rebecca Elizabeth works as a therapist in Columbia, and her job has given her the flexibility to work remotely most of the time. Her wife works in the medical field and has been required to work in-person throughout the pandemic. Elizabeth said that she’s had help from family here and there to watch her 2-year-old twins, but has had trouble finding something long-term that fits her family’s needs.

“We want high quality; we want convenience,” Elizabeth said. “You just don’t get that unless you want to pay astronomical prices.”

The Department of Social Services offers subsidies to support Missourians, but qualifications can be narrow. Low income, disability, homelessness or school attendance can all qualify a parent for a state child care subsidy, but many households with two working parents or single working parents are still excluded.

“We make enough money that we don’t qualify for things like DSS or child care assistance, but we also are not, like, filthy rich,” Elizabeth said. She added that sending her twins to preschool would cost around $2,000 to $3,000 per month.

“That’s like double our mortgage,” she said. “That’s insane to me.”

Parents like Elizabeth are then forced to look elsewhere for help. That can mean a long commute, exorbitant prices or settling for a child care provider that might not be the best fit. But the child care crisis in Missouri — and around the country — is nothing new.

Amy Marie is a single mother in Sunset Hills, a suburb of St. Louis. Her son Vinnie has Down syndrome. Finding adequate care for him has been a challenge since he was born 12 years ago.

“Most traditional day cares cannot accommodate him, because he basically needs one-on-one supervision,” Marie said. “We did a traditional day care center. He lasted about two hours before they asked me to come pick him up.”

Marie works for an insurance company as a benefits counselor on commission, allowing some flexibility in her day-to-day schedule. That’s a must for her, given the local child care options available.

“Anything outside of a Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 job is out of the question because, in my area, off-hour day care does not exist.”

Marie used to take Vinnie to a provider, but it wasn’t feasible. Large swaths of Missouri are child care deserts, which the Center for American Progress defines as census tracts where there are “more than three children under age 5 for every licensed child care slot.” That means parents often have to make long drives before and after work to reach a suitable and affordable child care provider.

“I had to drive almost a half-hour away for child care I could afford,” Marie said. Now, she brings providers to her.

“I have to have people come to my house,” she said, “which just keeps getting more and more expensive.”

Marie recognizes that the problems she faces are shared by parents everywhere, and believes that the issue deserves more attention.

“Just because they don’t make the most money, doesn’t mean their child doesn’t deserve a safe place,” she said.

A long-standing crisis

Like businesses in every other industry, child care providers fought to stay afloat throughout the pandemic. But the fight didn’t start there.

“COVID pulled back the curtain on the 30-plus years of a fragmented child care system,” said Robin Phillips, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, which provides information and resources to families and providers alike. Phillips has more than 20 years in the field of child care with a career focusing on advocacy and public policy.

“There’s never been enough infant and toddler care in our state, ever,” Phillips said.

The pitfall of the industry might very well be staffing. Without people to staff a day care, it wouldn’t matter if the place was right next door, and even parents that have the money to pay for the child care they want might not be able to find it.

“It doesn’t matter how much money people make,” Phillips said. “We don’t have enough of a child care supply to support working families.”

“Until we sit down as a country and as a state, or as a community … it’s never going to be fixed,” Phillips said. “And a huge part of it is the compensation issue and the retention challenges for the child care industry.”

“You can’t retain people at minimum wage,” she added. “You just can’t.”

As of December, 69% of child care centers reported that “recruiting and retaining qualified staff is more difficult now than it was before the pandemic,” according to a survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“Child care is viewed as an occupation,” Phillips said. “It is not valued as a profession; it is not valued as having significant learning impact or brain development.”

“They’re not babysitters,” Phillips added. “They’re professionals who are impacting the care and learning of children.”

Without proper pay, Phillips worries that many won’t see the industry as a viable career.

In interviews with several child care providers, EdSurge, a media outlet researching and covering education, found a similar sentiment. “In many cases, early childhood professionals — the vast majority of whom are women, and disproportionately women of color — could make more money working elsewhere, with fewer stressors and less effort,” EdSurge reported.

“Until that narrative changes,” Phillips said, “we’re going to continue to struggle to create any kind of pipeline, if you will, of individuals who want to come into this field and work in child care.”

The future of child care in Missouri

Missouri received federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help support child care centers as they struggled to recover from the pandemic. Out of the $24 billion allocated nationally for child care stabilization, about $444 million went to Missouri. A total of more than $721 million from the American Rescue Plan Act funded Missouri child care overall, according to an April news release from the White House.

Also, Gov. Mike Parson in January announced the Office of Childhood, to be housed within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education starting in August. The office is intended to combine different aspects of state government relating to early childhood care and education and streamline their services.

The new office plans to make adjustments based on suggestions from child care providers, including automating some processes and providing more regular communication, the Jefferson City News Tribune reports.

“We must see to it that the workforce of tomorrow starts off on the right foot,” Parson said, “and that means better support for Missouri children and their families.”

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