Opinion: Many Kentucky families who need child care the most can’t afford it

As someone who has worked in the field of early childhood for my entire career, it’s been a constant battle to balance my passion for young children with the demands of making sure we are keeping our doors open. I have seen dedicated colleagues throw up their hands in frustration and move on to another job that pays the bills, sadly taking their experience and passion for young children with them.  But I believe childcare providers such as myself are the key to the future prosperity of our commonwealth. And I believe that it is a worthy investment for taxpayers, regardless of whether you have kids.

When families have access to high-quality and affordable childcare, it’s a win-win-win. It’s a win for parents of young children who can get and keep a job to support their family, knowing that their children are safe and well cared for.

It means that children get early learning supports that will nurture their developing brains and give them a strong start in life. And it’s a win for local economies, as more parents can enter and remain in the workforce.

The 2019 “County Data Book,” recently released by Kentucky Youth Advocates, reports that over half of all Kentuckians live in a childcare desert, meaning that there is a severe shortage of childcare options for families in their area.

For instance, in McCracken County, where I live, there are some areas that have zero licensed childcare providers, while in others they don’t have enough spots to serve all the children who need it. This is a major barrier for parents who want to work but don’t have reliable childcare options.

Why do childcare deserts exist? The truth is that high-quality childcare is expensive, and most Kentuckians, particularly low-income and single parents, can scarcely afford the cost. A Kentucky family with an infant and a 4-year-old would need to pay $13,040 per year to send their children to my childcare center — close to what they would pay for college tuition.

Children with parents in the workforce (Photo: KIDS COUNT)

Parents of young children are often young themselves and at the beginning of their careers with little savings to speak of. Or, on the other spectrum, we see a growing number of children being raised by grandparents and other relatives who were planning for retirement, not second parenthood.

Kentucky’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) offers subsidies to low-income parents to help them afford the cost and has been an incredibly important tool for some families. However, many families who need it earn too much to qualify. Plus, the rates Kentucky pays participating childcare providers only cover a fraction of the cost of care, meaning that it’s very difficult to serve children and keep their small businesses afloat. In short, the market isn’t working to ensure that supply is meeting the demand.

Fortunately, Congress stepped up to the plate in 2018 and allocated a historic increase in the Child Care Development Block Grant, leading to an additional $42 million for Kentucky’s Child Care Assistance Program. This August, we had the honor of hosting Congressman James Comer for a visit to our childcare center to thank him for supporting the increase and show him firsthand how those dollars are being put to good use.

We shared with him that only 11% of eligible children are being served by CCAP in Kentucky, which means we have a long way to go. Comer pledged to keep the momentum going and advocate for additional funding for childcare in D.C. We hope the governor and the state legislature will do the same as they adopt a new state budget.

I continue to worry about the kiddos who need us most but cannot afford us. I think about one of the little guys at our center who is being raised by his grandma. Due to some developmental delays, we offer him physical, occupational and speech therapy, all provided at our center.

Over the year he has spent with us, we have seen incredible progress. His behavior has improved now that he can use his own words, and he has joined the same classroom as his same-age peers. Due to childcare assistance, his grandma is able to continue working while he is safe and cared for, improving her quality of life and keeping her in the workforce. But for every child like him, there are nine we are missing.

For too long, childcare providers have been asked to do more with less. But with our booming economy, our state can no longer afford to kick this can down the road. We can make access to quality childcare a reality for all families and the key is increased state and federal investments.