Kansas child care crisis puts the state’s economic future at risk. Solving it will take everyone.

June 29, 2023 3:33 am
The ongoing child care crisis poses economic threat to Kansas, writes KAC's John Wilson

The ongoing child care crisis poses economic threat to Kansas, writes KAC’s John Wilson. (Daria Nipot/Getty Images)

The need for accessible and affordable child care extends beyond parents and their children. It has cascading effects in our communities, from helping our local economies flourish to building a strong workforce once kids are grown. Kansas’ current infrastructure is unsustainable, and we’re seeing the stress cracks across the state.

Currently, 21 Kansas counties don’t have any available spots for infants, forcing parents to make difficult choices. According to the 2023 KIDS COUNT Data Book, about one in nine Kansas kids from birth to age 5 are in families where at least one of their parents lacked secure employment. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for families, especially those living on low wages, to maintain steady employment and achieve financial security.

We need to think of child care as an essential part of economic development. In the last few years, Kansas has brought several businesses to settle here that will add thousands of jobs throughout the state. But how can we fill those jobs if parents aren’t able to get to work because they don’t have convenient, affordable and safe child care options?

The lack of affordable child care costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion every year. Here in Kansas (where the minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009), infant child care costs take up around 8% of a married couple’s income and 26% of a single mother’s income, meaning that potential spending power isn’t boosting local economies as much as it could be.

Unaffordable and inaccessible care is not a problem that can just be solved by providers. Child care workers earn exceedingly low wages. The most recent data shows that Kansas providers make, on average, just $11.27 an hour (or about $22,500 a year). If providers have children of their own, they are unlikely to earn enough to put their kids in the same care they are providing for others.

It is time we acknowledge that the Kansas child care crisis is a problem for all of us — advocates, lawmakers, parents, providers, businesses and communities — to collectively solve.

I was encouraged to see robust conversation about the child care crisis this past legislative session, and I look forward to hearing the recommendations of the Early Childhood Transition Task Force later this year. Just last week, the Kansas Children’s Cabinet allocated $43.5 million for 52 projects that will create more than 4,000 new child care slots across the state. Earlier this month, Gov. Laura Kelly joined a group of other governors urging Congress to invest federal dollars into child care in the national 2024 budget.

Imagine what our kids can achieve if Congress and the Kansas Legislature build up our child care system much like they do the business community. The state must begin investing general fund dollars in child care much like we do K-12 education, so every child has high-quality early learning opportunities, regardless of their ZIP code, race, ability or family income.

Beyond the economic benefits of a robust early learning system are the implications for childhood development. Within the first five years of a child’s life, more than 1 million neural connections are formed every second. This time holds foundational opportunities for developing vital skills that will follow them throughout children’s entire lives. Planning, focus, self-control, and teamwork are among the capabilities learned early in life that can help people manage work, family, and relationships successfully.

Nationwide trends have shown that the number of students with below-average fourth grade reading and eighth grade math continues to climb year after year. We can start reversing these trends by investing in children’s early years and working to maximize their development through high-quality early learning opportunities in that critical time of life.

When our kids thrive and have the best opportunities to reach their full potential, we all benefit. Prioritizing safe, high-quality early learning opportunities is a win-win for families, the state, and the economy. We are growing the generation of Kansans, and this is an investment we can’t afford to ignore.

We look forward to working together over the next year to bolster our child care system and help more parents get on the path to financial success.

John Wilson is president of Kansas Action for Children. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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John Wilson
John Wilson

John Wilson joined Kansas Action for Children in September 2017 as vice president. He became president and CEO of KAC in 2019, after leading the group’s work in early education, health policy and family supports. Before his time at KAC, Wilson worked at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. As a Kansas State Representative, he worked to redefine the culture of the Legislature to make it more open and collaborative. The best parts of his day are when he’s spending time with his wife, Jami, and their two sons, Parker and Henry.