Missouri child care deserts include nearly half of kids 5 and under, new data shows
An investigation by The Missouri Independent and MuckRock found that despite hundreds of millions in federal pandemic relief money pouring into the state, child care facilities are facing huge staffing shortages and parents are struggling with long waitlists for care
Kayla Marmaud, who lives in what researchers called a child care desert, plays with her 16-month-old son, Finn, on April 24, 2023, in St. Joseph. (Erin Woodiel/Missouri Independent).
At five months pregnant, Kayla Marmaud started putting her name on waiting lists for child care.
But when her son was born in late 2021, she still hadn’t heard from any daycares. As her maternity leave drew to a close, Marmaud found herself in waitlist limbo.
Leaving the workforce was not an option financially for her or her husband, James. Grandparents were unavailable, and even unlicensed at-home daycares were full. So they contorted their schedules around one another, hurrying out the door when the other entered. She spent the days working as an administrative assistant at a local nonprofit, and her husband worked night and weekend shifts in restaurant management.
The makeshift arrangement ended last August, when one year after entering the waitlists, Marmaud finally found a spot for her then-eight-month-old son in a local daycare.
“Our family was able to navigate the time between my return to work and getting a spot,” she said. “Not all families have that luxury.”
Marmaud lives in St. Joseph, in Buchanan County, in what researchers call a “child care desert” — where there are more than three children ages 5 and under for every licensed child care slot or no licensed slots at all.
Almost half of all children in Missouri ages 5 and under, or about 202,000 kids, now live in child care deserts, The Missouri Independent and MuckRock found as part of a joint investigation, “Disappearing Daycare,” drawing from public records and data provided by the advocacy group Child Care Aware.
Those deserts are particularly concentrated in rural communities. In some ZIP codes, there are more than 20 children for every available seat in a licensed child care facility.
Living in a child care desert can leave parents feeling trapped, Marmaud said, their options severely constrained.
“Once a spot becomes open for a child, you have to take it. This eliminates parent choice in child care for their children,” she said.
ZIP codes alone are an imperfect measure of child care supply because families can drive beyond their own ZIP codes to nearby services, including child care. Still, clusters of ZIP codes characterized as child care deserts are meaningful: They show areas where child care is hardest to come by and driving to a neighboring area may not be possible.
And the fewer child care slots available in one ZIP code, the greater the potential demand on a neighboring ZIP code.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds have poured into the state to stabilize the child care industry, but the majority of grant money tracked by MuckRock and The Missouri Independent has gone to ZIP codes that aren’t in child care deserts.
Even in areas not considered deserts, where capacity looks plentiful on paper, many providers say waitlists abound.
One reason? They can’t hire enough staff to provide care and are forced to operate below capacity.
Federal pandemic money has helped keep child care providers afloat, but it hasn’t been enough to counter the hemorrhaging of staff from an industry with a median hourly wage of just under $12 in 2021.
If parents do find an open daycare slot, they have to shoulder an expense that can rival the cost of a mortgage or in-state college tuition — often at the point in their careers when they are making the least. For Marmaud, the daycare she eventually found was one of the cheaper options in her area yet it still eats up 17% of her family’s annual income.
The result is a limited set of options for parents of young children and an industry barely held afloat by a massive infusion of federal funds.
“Families are often faced with very difficult choices on what they should do to both be able to support their family and make sure that their children are in the highest quality care,” said Katie Rahn, executive director of the St. Louis advocacy group Gateway Early Childhood Alliance.
Piecemeal child care solutions can disrupt parents’ employment — and sometimes remove a parent from the workforce entirely. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found in 2021 that accessibility, quality and cost-related hurdles to child care force many Missouri parents out of the workforce or cause disruptions to their work, costing the state more than $1 billion annually.
Child care’s link to workforce issues has become a touchpoint for Gov. Mike Parson and lawmakers advocating for legislative change.
The governor is pushing several measures this year designed to alleviate the crisis — from expanding low-income public pre-K and tax credits to increasing the state’s subsidy reimbursement to providers that accept the public assistance program.
But each has run into roadblocks in the legislative process, and it’s unclear how much of Parson’s agenda will cross the finish line, despite bipartisan support.
“It would be a first step in what’s needed overall. [They] wouldn’t solve the entire problem,” Rahn said, of the governor’s proposals. “But it would certainly be moves in the right direction.”
‘Having to turn people away’
From fall 2019 to fall 2020, as pandemic restrictions caused many facilities to shutter, the total number of active child care programs in Missouri dropped by 24%. That left 80,600 more children in child care deserts than the year before. The number of programs in Missouri has largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels — in part due to the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid directed to Missouri child care.
But access issues remain: There was a lack of child care before the pandemic, and the federal COVID funds are one-time.
Ashlie Marriott, who owns a licensed center for 20 children in the rural northwest Missouri town of Pickering, said she tells parents seeking infant care the wait could be two years. The surrounding ZIP codes have either no child care programs or so many more children than slots that they are classified as child care deserts.
“I get messages every single day asking if I have availability, if I can accept a drop-in, if I can help for a week here, a week there,” she said.
The other providers in the Pickering area, Marriott said, are smaller and in-home, so their spots are typically filled.
“I’ve just been kind of really having to turn people away,” she said, adding that staffing is not the issue in her rural area, but rather a lack of child care facilities. She hopes to secure state funding to build out her facility and serve more kids.
Tara Doba, who runs a 10-child in-home, licensed daycare in Dixon, in Pulaski County, said she is “completely booked” and facing such high demand that when one child is missing for a day, due to illness, “I am usually able to fill it with a drop-in.”
Doba’s ZIP code has a ratio of about 10 children per slot in a cluster of other desert ZIP codes in and near Pulaski County.
Dean Ferguson opened a licensed facility in Shell Knob, in southwest Missouri, in 2021 to try to remedy the lack of licensed facilities in the area. It expanded last year.
At a county and ZIP code level, southwest Missouri is one of the areas in the state with the least child care capacity.
Ferguson’s is the only licensed facility “in 20 miles in every direction,” he said — and he was “fortunate” to find a church willing to provide space without charging him, something many providers struggle to find.
Now, he has 35 children enrolled and a waitlist of 10 infants and one 3-year-old. A lack of options drives many in the region to less-regulated care, Ferguson said.
“In our area down here in Barry County, there are so many unlicensed, unregulated daycares,” he said. “You have so many unlicensed ones that are charging $75 to $100 a week. And parents, honestly, just are not concerned whether the child care space is licensed or not because they’re so desperate for child care.”
Ferguson said he hears about unlicensed facilities in the region where there are far more children per staff member than state regulations allow.
To be exempt from state licensing requirements a facility must fall into one of a few categories — for instance, if they care for six or fewer children or qualify for a faith-based exemption.
Unlicensed facilities are still required to register with the state and meet certain requirements, but some operate under the radar, said Casey Hanson, director of outreach and engagement at the child advocacy nonprofit Kids Win Missouri.
“They still have requirements to meet for registered providers…but the off-the-grid [facilities], there’s no way to track that,” Hanson said “And we definitely hear about that a lot from people that are in those desert communities, is that everything around them is truly off-the-grid child care happening.”
As part of COVID relief packages, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds have poured into the state to stabilize the child care industry. Roughly $230 million in funding has been awarded to Missouri through federal COVID-19 relief packages, but the majority of money from several grants created by this funding is going to ZIP codes that aren’t in child care deserts, MuckRock and The Missouri Independent found.
Hanson said rural providers may not have the “administrative capacity” or infrastructure to apply for some of these grants.
Mallory McGowin, a spokesperson for Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the relief funding for daycares “were not limited to only child care deserts” and the federal government “encouraged states to distribute funds to programs who continued to operate during and after the pandemic as well as those who were starting up or expanding programs.”
Plenty of slots, but no staff
Particularly in urban areas, child care providers say they have the infrastructure to serve more children but not the staff to do so. As a result, even in non-deserts, families struggle to access care.
“It’s never been super easy [to hire] in child care, but since the pandemic it has gotten exponentially more difficult,” said Megan Huffman, who owns a faith-based child care center, Rising Sun Learning Center, in Kansas City.
Rising Sun has about 90 kids enrolled, though it has the capacity for up to 147. If the facility could hire just two more teachers it could enroll an additional 20 kids, said Jessica Tran, Rising Sun’s director.
The current staffing issues are a variation of a longstanding problem, Rahn, the St. Louis advocate, said.
“Pre-pandemic, we had programs that would have very long waiting lists,” she said. “Unfortunately, we now have programs that still have very long waiting lists, but they could actually take more children in their care if they had teachers to fill classrooms that are currently empty.”
The state had 1,110 fewer child care workers in September of last year than it did pre-pandemic, in February 2020, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics quarterly census of employment and wages.
Yolanda Nero, president of license-exempt Little Hearts Academy in Kansas City and pastor at the church that houses it, opened the facility in 2021 to respond to need in the community.
Just 12 of 63 slots at the facility are filled, she said, due to difficulty hiring staff — she cited limited compensation and the “burnout rate” of the demanding work.
“It has been a challenge to remain open,” she said.
The field has long struggled with turnover, in part due to the low pay. That problem has been exacerbated by a tight labor market providing higher-wage opportunities in other fields.
“With Walmart and other companies paying $18 and $20, and I can only pay you, if you’re experienced, $17.50,” she said. “Even the inexperienced ones…they want $15 an hour.”
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She can’t afford to pay the staff more with the rates she charges to parents, but parents can’t afford to pay higher fees either, leaving everyone in a bind. Nero has received grants from the state’s federal funding, including to provide bonus incentives for staff, and said they have been helpful but are not long-term solutions.
The median hourly pay for a child care worker was just under $12 in 2021, the same as Missouri’s current minimum wage, according to Missouri Economic Research and Information Center’s Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates’ 2021 data.
The long waitlists for families alongside empty classrooms have, for many, signaled a crisis.
“It’s a market failure,” said Hanson of Kids Win Missouri, “when you have the demands, but you can’t really create a supply that’s needed to address it.”
Costs to families are high — the average cost of center-based care for an infant in Missouri was $10,555 as of 2021, according to Child Care Aware. But running a high-quality child care facility is often even more expensive. Providers aren’t generally cashing in, but operating on thin profit margins. Nero’s center, for instance, hasn’t yet broken even.
Most revenue goes to overhead costs, including staff payroll. State regulations require certain ratios of staff to children, such as one adult per four kids age 0 to 2, making caring for infants particularly labor and cost-intensive.
Gina Adams, an expert on child care policy at Washington, D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute, said the gap between what parents can pay and the true cost of providing high-quality care demands public investment.
“It is just not tenable, because parents are paying most of the costs and it constrains the ability of providers to pay their staff decent wages, to be able to invest in curriculum, and all the kinds of things we’d want,” she said, “because [providers] have this absolute downward pressure constraining their ability to charge what it would cost to do the best quality care.”
Those constraints on quality are worse in “communities with lower incomes, rural communities, all those communities that have less resources,” she said.
“The system relying as heavily as it does on private-pay parents does not work,” she added, later continuing: “This is something that is a public good, so the public sector has to step up.”
A lack of infant care
Some providers, to accommodate reduced staffing, have opted to reduce the most labor-intensive service they provide: Child care for infants.
That’s one explanation Lindsay Brand, of St. Louis County, heard when she struggled to find affordable, part-time care for her infant son, who was born in May 2021.
“I signed up [for waitlists] before he was born, but maybe I should have signed up when I was thinking about getting pregnant,” she laughed, “because it was like, ‘maybe in two years.’ But then…he won’t be an infant. He’ll be in the toddler room. Do I start at the bottom again?”
When she called one child care center to check on her waitlist status, they told her “they didn’t have an infant room anymore because they couldn’t hire anyone for it,” she said, “so that was like a dead waitlist.” Other options were so expensive as to be out of the question — roughly half her take-home pay.
Brand, an instructor at a local community college, had hoped to return to in-person teaching that fall. Instead, work and child care blended together. She opted to teach her classes remotely and asynchronously for the year.
“It was just a lot to do full-time child care and also teach full time, because it was two jobs,” she said.
Her child is now in part-time care at a babysitter’s home, but it is a 30-minute drive. She hopes he’ll get off a waitlist to go to a nearby daycare in August — then, her son will be two and she expects more slots to be available, since care for toddlers is not as scarce as for infants.
Government funding to help start new or expand existing child care programs during the pandemic may not do much to help those specifically looking for infant care. Applicants for Missouri’s child care grants estimated they’d add about twice as many slots for preschoolers (about 9,460) than for infants (about 4,070), according to MuckRock and The Missouri Independent’s analysis of grant applications.
Nesha Wright, who works as a mental health professional at a school in Jefferson City, gave birth late last year and started looking for child care shortly before she got off maternity leave — only to find facilities either with waitlists of over a year or out of reach financially.
Ultimately, Wright’s mother decided to retire two years early to care for the newborn full time.
It could be temporary, Wright hoped: Perhaps her mother could go back to work part-time once they found care. “But we still haven’t been able to find anything at this point.”
Wright applied for Early Head Start, the federal early childhood program for those below the poverty line, which also accepts a small number of those above the income cutoff — her family makes too much to qualify. She remains on the waitlist for Early Head Start.
“I’m kind of at the point where I make too much for Early Head Start, but I feel like I don’t make enough to be paying $1,250 or $1,650…monthly for child care.
“I mean, thank God for my mom. It just sucks that she had to kind of derail her plans.”
Wright didn’t expect the process of finding care to be so difficult.
“I know you probably hear ‘well, you shouldn’t have a baby if you aren’t ready to take care of a baby,’ but it’s like: Okay, well, we’re here now so what can we do?”
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