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Heavier Federal Spending On Child Care Could Help Kansas City Parents Return To Workforce

Child care centers like United Inner City Services have operated throughout the pandemic but with low enrollment. Typically, programs have waitlists for infant and toddler classrooms.
Carlos Morenos/KCUR 89.3
Child care centers like United Inner City Services have operated throughout the pandemic but with low enrollment. Typically, programs have waitlists for infant and toddler classrooms, but not this year.

A year of school closures, quarantines and work from home underscored the importance of child care, even as providers in the Kansas City area struggled to keep their doors open.

As workplaces reopen, many Kansas City parents will need to find child care for kids who’ve been at home during the pandemic. The Biden administration has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help educate and care for young children, which could help the struggling child care industry recover from COVID-19.

If passed, the American Families Plan would represent a massive investment into child well-being policies early childhood education advocates have wanted for years. President Joe Biden has proposed spending $1.8 trillion to help kids and families, including $225 billion for paid parental leave, $225 billion for child care and $200 billion for preschool. His proposal also caps child care expenses for most low- and middle-income families.

“Stating that no family should spend more than 7% of their income on child care? That’s huge,” said Paula Neth of the Family Conservancy in Wyandotte County. “It means we’ll be financing the system at a different level than we currently are.”

And new federal dollars for child care would also prop up an industry that’s been struggling throughout the pandemic. The Kansas City area has lost 3,872 child care spots and counting, which could keep some parents who’ve left the workforce out of it as the economy recovers.

Biden’s plan, however, faces sharp opposition from Congressional conservatives, many of whom have accused the president of government overreach.

But Neth doesn’t think that’s how working parents see it.

“If anything has come out of it is that people have really realized the critical role that childcare plays in our infrastructure,” Neth said. “Many parents, like they need roads and bridges to get to work, they need childcare as well.

“We’re moving toward early care and education as a public good.”

Parents in the workforce

Greg Kindle is one of the business leaders who’s come around to Neth’s way of thinking. As president of the Wyandotte Economic Development Council, he helps businesses solve workforce problems. Child care is one of the big ones.

“I didn't see it as an issue for the economic development organization in Wyandotte County to be involved with until pretty far in my career, to be honest,” Kindle said. “Today, I'm super passionate.”

Kindle said the lack of affordable child care has a ripple effect when those kids enter kindergarten. They’ve already missed out on crucial early learning experiences that help with brain development.

The high cost of care — especially for infants, which can cost up to $1,000 a month — also keeps some low-income parents out of the workforce.

“There are a lot of working poor in Wyandotte County making $24,000 a year. That means over half your household income would go to child care,” Kindle said. “That’s not happening.”

Kindle says there are a lot of employers hiring in Wyandotte County right now. Jobs that pay at least $14 an hour, and many that pay upwards of $20.

But even families making two and three times the minimum wage can have trouble paying for child care.

Even Kindle’s family has made employment decisions because of child care.

“I mean, the last year we had two kids in child care, it cost us over $20,000. In some respects, we were working for child care. And when we had our third child, the decision was made that my wife would work from home and do more consulting work until the youngest went to school,” Kindle said.

Under Biden’s plan, even middle-income families would get help paying for child care. In Kansas, a family of four making $130,000 a year could still get help paying for care. Their costs would be capped at 7%, or about $9,000.

Family decisions

Kimberlee Jones and her husband started their family when they moved from North Carolina to the Kansas City area five years ago. They had one daughter, then another. Jones’ husband made enough money for her to stay at home with them, which was the right choice at the time.

“In order for us to pay child care costs, I would definitely have to go back to work, but then that would probably just go for child care,” Jones said.

But Jones is highly employable. She double majored in accounting and marketing at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black college in Greensboro. She’s worked in banking and volunteered for AmeriCorps as a literacy tutor. Her dream is to do career counseling for high school students, work that educators agree is critically important.

“Last year was going to be the time where I was going to put them into pre-K,” Jones said. “However, the pandemic hit, and I said, ‘That’s an absolutely no.’”

Factoring into Jones’ decision, she found out she was pregnant with their third child just weeks into the pandemic. She gave birth to a baby girl at the end of 2020, and for now, her family continues to stay home.

Jones isn’t the only one. Neth, with the Family Conservancy, says a lot of parents are nervous about putting their kids back into child care, even though many providers have operated throughout the pandemic.

“I think there may just be a little more hesitancy with families with younger children of putting them into group care,” Neth said.

Fewer seats than before

That hesitancy has child care providers struggling to emerge from the pandemic. COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available, but in the Kansas City area, providers continue to close. In the last four months, the region lost another 600 child care seats. That’s on top of the 3,200 that had been lost as of December. In total, the metro has lost 6% of child care capacity.

Jocelyn Mourning of the Family Conservancy predicted that would happen.

“This may not sound like a lot, but it doesn’t account for those operating at limited capacity either,” Mourning wrote in a March 2 email to KCUR. “We know a majority of open programs are not running at full capacity, and we have gathered feedback from some providers that if enrollment doesn’t go up soon, many are in jeopardy of closing their doors.”

Usually, there’s a waiting list for infant and toddler seats, but providers are still struggling to fill even those. Reached by phone the day after Biden’s speech to Congress, Neth said if providers continue to close, there won’t be child care for employees as workplaces reopen this summer.

“It's too early to tell how that's going to start strengthening the infrastructure at the state level. Those are investments we hope start to shore up the system,” Neth said.

Without them, Neth is worried that parents — especially mothers — won’t be able to return to the workforce when they’re ready post-pandemic. That’s already happening in the child care sector. Child care workers are notoriously underpaid, typically making only a few dollars more than minimum wage.

“We’re not only losing child care teachers, but women in the workforce,” Neth said. The Family Conservancy has even started a new jobs board to connect child care providers and workers.

She said Biden’s plan has the potential to improve working conditions for those who take care of young kids because new federal dollars for early childhood education would likely raise quality across the board.

“One of the things I’ve started to see pop up on social media is the dichotomy between education and care, and we really need to be thinking about education as care and care as education,” Neth said.

“It’s a continuum. Children in child care are in education settings and are learning, just as they are in pre-K. Families need choices that meet their individual family needs.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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