KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A new study of early-childhood education affordability and availability in a five-county region around Kansas City found a “system in crisis” that serves roughly half of the area’s need for preschool child-care services.
“We learned a lot about local families who struggle to find and afford child care, confusing and complex child care subsidy requirements and application processes, and persistent racial and economic disparities affecting access to high-quality child care,” according to the analysis of early-childhood education resources in the Kansas City area performed by IFF.
The study included Clay, Jackson and Platte counties in Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.
IFF, formerly the the Illinois Facilities Fund, is a Community Development Financial Institution headquartered in Chicago, that finances and advises nonprofits on issues of equity.
The report, “No Small Thing: Addressing Systemic Inequities in Early Childhood Education,” found that there are an estimated 73,815 day-care slots for roughly 145,000 children under age 6 in the Kansas City area.
It also determined that access to affordable child care dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic, deepening the decades-long crisis in an industry that creates financial burdens for low- and middle-income families, struggles to attract and retain workers, and doesn’t exist equitably across the region.
“In short, the ECE business model that was strained before the pandemic, is broken,” the report said.
Service gaps worse for infant care
There are nearly 27,000 children under age 6 in Jackson County and almost 17,000 in Johnson County who don’t have access to an early-childhood education opening, the highest service gaps in the five-county region.
But there are early-childhood education slots available for 65% of those Johnson County children and 51% of those Jackson County children, percentages that dwarf those for Clay (37%), Wyandotte (33%) and Platte (31%) counties.
The child-care crisis is even greater for infant care with slots available for only 17% of children ages 2 and younger in Jackson, Wyandotte and Clay counties. The service level is 13% for Platte County.
While Johnson County’s infant-care service level — 45% — is robust compared to surrounding counties, it remains below half of the availability needed.
“The need for programs serving children younger than age three was particularly acute across the region,” according to the IFF study.
Despite the fact that child-care is often a burdensome expense for parents — infant care averages $935 per month in Kansas and $837 per month in Missouri — child-care workers aren’t well compensated.
The average annual salary for a Kansas City-area child-care worker is less than $24,000 per year, which is below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
After many child-care centers closed during the pandemic, the early-childhood education crisis worsened because of a labor shortage.
Women, who fill most of the early-childhood education jobs, were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, leaving the job market in higher numbers than men.
Now, attracting workers to a low-wage job with long, year-round hours can be a challenge.
“Overall, both providers and families wished child care providers and staff were paid more, had the respect they deserve for caring for and educating our youth, and that policymakers would implement permanent solutions to address these challenges,” the IFF report said.
Most child-care providers already operate on thin profit margins. With rising costs for providers fueled, in part, by inflation, there is little wiggle room for increasing worker pay and benefits without raising costs and further burdening families.
IFF found that families in the five-county area studied pay 10 to 25% of their household income on infant care and 10 to 20% of their household income on child care for children ages 3 to 5.
“The threshold for subsidized child care assistance programs in both states is low,” IFF’s report concluded. “We learned that many Kansas City families are caught in the affordability trap where they make too much income to qualify for child care subsidy assistance and yet make far too little to pay tuition fees — even at a reduced rate. This bind happens to far too many families, even those earning good wages.”
Long waitlists and confusing subsidy application processes create additional barriers to early-childhood education access.
Subsidy rates are based on what child-care providers charge, but those rates are often below the true operating cost, especially in low-income areas with a history of disinvestment and redlining.
Increasing subsidy eligibility to 200% of the federal poverty level and adjusting the subsidy reimbursement rate combined with efforts to streamline the application process for programs like Head Start and Early Head Start might help close the affordability gap, but it won’t mean much without investment in increasing the number of providers.
Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded programs that provide subsidized child care for families at or below the poverty level.
Platte and Clay counties don’t have any Head Start or Early Head Start providers and those programs are sparse in Johnson, Wyandotte and Jackson counties with less than 10% of the need met for the federally subsidized programs.
What can be done?
To stem the crisis, IFF recommended additional financial assistance and supportive programming from state programs in Missouri and Kansas along with better consolidation and the consolidation of available state resources.
The report also suggested to find a way to increase pay and provide benefits to early-childhood education workers, strengthening training and retention programs, promoting universal pre-K programs, and increasing subsidies to cover the true cost of caring for preschool children.
Additional long-term strategies for achieving those goals include aligning pay scales with K-12 educators as a strategy to attract and retain staff, funding early-childhood education as a public service, raising the income threshold so more families qualify for subsidies, and consolidating data systems to increase efficiency and impact.