Middle-class families in Missouri find few affordable choices for early childhood care
David Wise does the diaper changes and feedings for his 9-month-old son, Pablo. Wise is a stay-at-home dad and they've read hundreds of books together.
There’s a federally-funded Head Start child care center just a few blocks away in St. Louis’ Tower Grove East neighborhood that could care for Pablo. But Wise’s family earns too much to qualify and day care centers that charge money are too expensive for them.
Wise’s wife, Kelly Dougherty, works full time as a hospital social worker. Wise was working part time at a coffee shop when Dougherty became pregnant. He decided to quit that job to stay home with Pablo instead of funneling his entire paycheck, and possibly more, into child care.
“The options close by were pretty much out of our price range and if I would have kept working, it would have been just to pay for day care, essentially,” Wise said one afternoon while sitting in Pablo’s room. “So it seemed like the most logical option for us was for me to stay at home.”
Wise and his wife cut back on entertainment and going out to eat. He enjoys being home with his son, though he admits he encounters loneliness. Despite cutting back on expenses, savings for emergencies — like when Pablo was hospitalized with the flu — are thin.
“We make it work,” Wise said. “I guess I feel like we didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It was pretty much the best choice of very few choices.”
Wise’s family isn’t alone in making tough choices around child care, or struggling with the high cost. A poll done by NPR, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last year found cost of day care to be parents’ biggest concern.
Few options to stem high costs
That cost in Missouri averages $9,100 a year, nearly the same as in-state public college tuition, according to Child Care Aware, a parent resource and advocacy organization. Some private urban care centers can cost thousands more.
Increasing the number of spots in a day care would theoretically drive down the cost. But that’s not always easy. Day care centers require large and well-trained staffs. And pay can be low. The national average in 2016 was $21,170, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Not to get too wonky, but it’s just riddled with market inefficiencies and problems that are going to lead to undersupply, chronically,” said Rasheed Malik, who is an early childhood policy analyst at the Center for American Progress and has researched access to child care in Missouri.
The Center for American Progress found more than half of Missouri families live in what it calls a “child care desert,” meaning quality and affordable care is too far away to be feasible for a family. That can cause parents to leave the workforce to care for young children, Malik said.
“We cannot meet the demand, at all,” said Pamela Huntspon, an enrollment coordinator for the YWCA, a provider of Head Start in St. Louis for more than 1,400 pre-school children. Head Start is the federal program that helps prepare children from birth to age 5 from low-income families for school.
There’s a long waiting list at SouthSide Early Childhood Center, according to executive director Katie Rahn.
SouthSide is the oldest day care west of the Mississippi River. It cares for 144 children, 80 percent of whom live in poverty and attend for free through Head Start. The remaining spots can cost upwards of $320 a week, depending on age.
The high demand for spots in both programs is indicative of a gap between the families eligible for Head Start and those who can afford to pay out of pocket, Rahn said.
“There is a huge equity issue in terms of what families can afford to pay for in terms of quality and access,” she said. “There are just not enough programs who are able to serve low-income kids in high quality ways.”
In addition to cost, some families have a difficult time finding convenient care options that match night or weekend work schedules. Rahn and Huntspon say quality at any type of care varies widely.
Some public agencies, including St. Louis Public Schools, are expanding free preschool to 3-year-olds. But that still leaves several years of child care to fill for parents like Wise. So he plans on being home, and living frugally, for the time being.
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