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WICHITA, Kansas—Access to safe, reliable child care for young children in the U.S. doesn’t match demand. Of the country’s approximately 3.9 million 2-year-olds, about 2.4 million, or 62 percent, had mothers who worked in 2016, a good indicator that they need nonparental care for some portion of the day. (Stay-at-home fathers are still too small a group to have a significant impact on the big-picture numbers.) But only about 37 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds are in care that is licensed by the state or federal government, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
For parents of toddlers left to navigate such an unforgiving reality on their own, the search for high-quality, affordable care can quickly become incredibly frustrating. Those with limited means are offered insufficient help and those with greater means are offered nothing at all.
“People think it is their own, personal, independent problem and they just have to solve it, but if you lived in Italy, Denmark, or Canada, you wouldn’t have to solve it,” said Teresa Rupp, executive director of Child Start, a charitable organization providing low- or no-cost care in Wichita, Kansas. “We have not reached the point of saying ‘collective action is what it takes.’ ”
More subsidized child care, like that available in other industrialized nations, would make a big difference to a large number of families, Rupp said. But for parents of little children, it’s too hard to see beyond the immediate needs of holding on to a job and taking care of a baby to advocate for change. By the time people reach a point where they can look up long enough to see the bigger picture, Rupp said, they’re usually no longer in need of child care.
Wichita, smack in the middle of the U.S., is, in some ways, a microcosm of the whole country. Seventy-two percent of the city’s residents are white, 17 percent live in poverty, and the median family income is $58,937, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—all numbers that track closely with the country as a whole. (The national median family income is about $7,000 higher than in Wichita, but the city’s cost of living is cheaper than the national average.) Known for its aerospace industry jobs and as a good place to raise kids, the small city has a thriving middle class. But the struggles affecting many Midwestern cities—a shrinking population, fewer farm jobs, and a growing drug crisis—are also a problem here.
Kansas leans conservative politically, but its policies for families struggling to pay for child care aren’t that far off the national average. There are more people who qualify for help than there is help to give, and provisions meant to encourage recipients to gain financial independence can sometimes do the opposite.
Sitting on a couch in her home, set up for her in part by her fellow church members, Alicia Lee, 26, knows firsthand how hard it is to find the public assistance she needs to better provide for her children. She would like to be a nurse, and she’s already earned her certified nursing assistant certificate. The next step is to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“It would be financial stability and a sense of fulfillment to serve others,” Lee said of holding down a nursing job.
But to have the time to earn a degree, Lee’s two daughters, Grace, 2, and Faith, 10 months, would need reliable child care. Lee is newly married, but for most of her girls’ lives so far, she’s been a single mother living off disability payments she gets for pre-existing health issues. Without help, she can’t afford to send her kids to day care while she attends school. Kansas has a program that helps low-income parents pay for child care but only if they’re working. (The program does support high school students and some types of job training.) Lee has considered working as a nursing assistant for $9 to $11 an hour and trying to qualify for state aid, but that would mean sacrificing the disability payments.
The one program that would care for Grace and Faith for free while Lee earns a nursing degree is Early Head Start, a federally funded care and education program for children younger than 3 who are living in poverty. But the program, started in the 1990s, has never had enough money to offer a spot to every child who qualifies for one. Right now, the program serves just 6 percent of eligible American children.
Grace and Faith are on the waiting list for the local Early Head Start program. Grace has been on the list for a year. Lee added Faith when she was a few weeks old.
For families like Lee’s, the policy problems are obvious. They need help, but only a certain kind of help is offered, and since it’s not the right kind, they are simply playing the waiting game.
Meghan and Arif Sheikh live about 25 minutes away from Lee. Arif is an engineer and Meghan works in the financial aid office at Wichita State University. Although their financial situation is very different from the Lees’, the Sheikhs were in a similar dilemma two years ago when their first daughter, Sarah, was born.
While the couple had a new four-door car with a car seat, new infant clothes, and a freshly equipped nursery, they had nowhere for Sarah to go during work hours, Monday to Friday. And the options they’d thought might be available to them—including the day care center just off campus near Wichita State University, where Meghan worked as a student—had no room for Sarah.
“There was no plan, and I’m a procrastinator, and I guess it was just ‘we’ll figure it out when she gets here,’ but it was selfish and I was tunnel-visioned,” Arif said.
With Meghan due back at work within 10 weeks of giving birth—and Arif back already, after just a couple days’ break—the clock was ticking. So Arif, between hours at work, set off to try to visit a cluster of day care centers that he and Meghan had found using Google.
“Some of those day cares, you can’t even show up without an appointment,” he said.
Meghan thought she knew why: “If they’re not willing to take you as a walk-in, then they really don’t want you to see their normal, day-to-day operation,” she speculated.
When the couple did manage to get into a place for a visit, they were underwhelmed. Meghan remembers seeing infants awake in their cribs with blankets and pillows while staff members were sitting in rocking chairs, without holding any babies. Neither parent wanted to leave Sarah in a place where she’d be unattended.
Both parents agreed that the best place they had seen was the university-based Child Development Center, where Meghan had worked. They added Sarah’s name to the waiting list as soon as she was born but were told they may have more than a year to wait before the child got a spot at the school.
Right before Meghan was due to return to work, she and Arif found a day care center they were satisfied with that had an opening and was located in a neighborhood about six minutes’ easy drive from their house. Initially, Meghan and Arif were happy with the arrangement. But, over time, they began to worry. They felt the children were being fed “garbage” sugary foods at breakfast. Meghan found that Sarah had been improperly cleaned after diaper changes, once even coming home with poop drying on her back. And when the parents stopped by on lunch breaks, they once observed the caretakers ignoring crying children and another time caught one napping. Moreover, both parents remember that Sarah often cried in the car on the way to day care and came home at the end of the day unhappy and unsettled.
“Leaving her there just broke my heart every day,” Arif said.
When Meghan became pregnant with their second daughter, they signed her up at the Child Development Center months before she was born. The younger girl, now 1, was offered a spot in the infant room right before Meghan went back to work again, and her older sister, now 2, got a spot a few months later.
“Now when I pull into the driveway at day care, [Sarah] gets excited,” Meghan said.
Meghan and Arif’s experience underscores the plight of even middle- and upper-income families in thousands of cities across America: There’s little-to-no centralized information; the “good” centers fill up fast; paying for even a subpar center can strain the budget; and determining what’s good—and what’s not—can prove a gargantuan task for everyone, since there are few objective measures parents can look at to determine how well a center serves the children in its care.
In Kansas, the best option for an inquiring parent is to call the Kansas office of Child Care Aware, a national watchdog organization. That office can provide referrals and a wealth of statistics about child care options in the state, including licensing status and rates. The state also has a database that lists all of the various providers by ZIP code, but a thorough scan of every listing in two Wichita ZIP codes by the Hechinger Report and the Teacher Project found that not every entry has enough information for a parent to find the provider and pursue care.
Some states have taken a more active role in helping families make determinations about child care center quality. In Ohio, for instance, there’s a star-rating system for public and private centers based on regular state inspections and available to the general public. Such systems are fairly well established in 38 states and can help parents be aware of red flags. A center found to be improperly cleaning babies after diaper changes, either through parent reporting of annual inspections, might get a lower rating. Known in the field as “quality rating and improvement” systems, or QRIS, star ratings are becoming increasingly popular, but still only a handful of states have them up and running in an easy-to-use, parent-friendly way. And the systems are usually “opt in,” meaning that many licensed child care providers choose not to participate.
Moreover, most of these measures fail to reach the other significant segment of the child care landscape for the youngest children: home-based care. Nearly 14 percent of families nationally rely on licensed, home-based child care centers for their 1- and 2-year-olds, according to the Census Bureau. These are most-often small, female-run businesses offering care for mixed-age groups of five to 12 children in a home, rather than a center.
Ikisha Reed, 30, works as a hospice aide and uses her Kansas state child care subsidy to pay for five days a week of home-based child care for her daughter Imari, 3. Reed, who has three children, initially called a few centers and found they cost more than the state provided. But she wasn’t thrilled with what she found in the cheaper home care market.
“I was not pleased,” Reed said of the first home-based day care Imari attended. “There were three rooms and they pretty much just sat in the room all day. It was ‘you’re gonna do what I say or else.’ I wasn’t comfortable leaving them there.”
She found another place, but that provider didn’t talk to the kids much at all and let her dog run loose among the little ones. Finally, through a relative, Reed heard about Kanetha Brown, a former teacher’s aide who now runs a small home-based day care.
“She keeps them busy,” said Reed, whose school-age children have spent summers at Brown’s home day care. “I don’t ever go there and they’re not doing anything. Since we’ve been down here, they have bragged on her. It’s Ms. Brown this, Ms. Brown that. I just feel secure knowing that they’re in a safe environment.”
For her part, Brown said she loves running her day care, which fills a bright back room at her house with toys, musical instruments, and alphabet charts. She works hard to make sure the kids are learning from her and one another, and she ensures that they have a regular routine that includes getting outside every day. But, in a complete reversal of the type of problem found at popular centers, she’s having some trouble filling several spots that went empty when some older students graduated to kindergarten. She’s on a referral list for parents who are looking for care, but she gets few calls that way, she said. Mostly, it’s word of mouth—Brown is largely on her own for advertising her services.
Paula White, another home-care provider in Wichita, has run her business for 27 years and has less trouble keeping it full now. The trick, she says: “If you don’t want to have any gaps, you have to take the infants.” The downside to that is that she now rarely has a free spot for a 2-year-old. “It used to be where I’d have that extra spot for a toddler or two. But now it seems like to make sure I have spots filled, I have to have infants who grow into the next grade level.”
Rupp, the executive director of Child Start, has been working in and observing the early childhood field since 1983. She said some things have changed for the better, like states requiring higher quality in exchange for issuing day care licenses. Still, the system is a far cry from being fully functional for the increasing number of families who need it, she said.
“If it was really fixed,” Rupp said, “people wouldn’t feel like they had to solve this problem themselves, would they?”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to elevating the voices of students and teachers. and sign up for .