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Childcare crisis: St. Louis-area parents face increasing costs and decreasing options

Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 12:21 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - It’s being called a childcare crisis. Local parents say quality childcare is almost impossible to find and frightening to have to afford. It’s a pre-pandemic problem that experts say is much worse now.

In fact, Kelly Remick says stress is overshadowing the joy of being a new mom.

“It’s been really tough,” says Kelly.

The University City mom has struggled to find childcare she can afford when she goes back to work.

“It shouldn’t be this complicated,” she says.

Kelly got on several daycare waitlists when she was just six weeks pregnant. Months after her child Logan was born, she still didn’t have a spot.

“If I can find someone who can keep my child alive, I will pay that person to do it,” Kelly says, as she fights back the tears. “You shouldn’t have to struggle to raise a kid, if that’s what you want to do.”

Kelly is far from alone. Ask any parent of young kids and it’s all they want to talk about. Experts say because of the pandemic, the childcare crisis around the country is getting worse, with demand far outweighing supply.

In fact, Missouri officials say compared to pre-pandemic data, there has been a 30% reduction in childcare facilities, with experts adding that both centers and in-home providers have been shutting their doors.

It’s so bad that more than half of Missourians live in what’s known as a childcare desert. 64% of Missouri’s counties either have no childcare providers at all or three times as many kids needing care as there are spots available. Black, brown and rural communities, experts say, are often disproportionately impacted by the lack of care.

“The cost of childcare has been increasing rapidly over the past several decades,” says Zane Mokhiber of the Economic Policy Institute. The bottom line, experts say, is also a big part of the problem.

The non-profit Economic Policy Institute put together an interactive site, showing the average annual cost of infant care in Missouri is now more than $10,000. That’s 4% more than the average cost of housing and nearly 20% more than in-state tuition for a four-year college.

In Illinois, it’s even more expensive. The average annual cost of infant care in the Land of Lincoln is almost $13,800, which is15% more than the average cost of housing and about the same as college tuition.

“Childcare costs are a significant portion of most families’ budgets,” Mokhiber adds. But despite high costs for parents, providers say they are far from flush with cash.

“Our supplies have gone up. Our food has gone up incredibly. It’s very expensive,” says Maggie Gray. She runs Brainy Tots Bilingual Preschool out of her home in Florissant.

Licensed and accredited, the kids get an education and quality care in a small setting and at a much lower cost than a larger, traditional childcare center.

“We are always a lower-cost option because we would put ourselves out of the equation if we charged higher fees,” she says. But like all providers, Maggie struggles to retain staff—and make ends meet.

“The moment we lose a child, things get tighter, because we don’t have a lot of wiggle room.

Still, while other centers are backed up, she has open spots.

“The view of the home care provider is someone not well prepared, or well-educated,” Maggie says.

A stigma she battles by focusing on the whole child.

“That little guy still needs to learn to put on socks and shoes,” says Maggie.

Some parents choose even cheaper options, although that, she says, makes her worry.

“The first three years are so essential, she says. “But if we spend them watching TV, that’s just not good enough.”

The cost and availability of childcare, experts say, are causing many parents, particularly women, to simply stay home.

One recent study, published by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, finds Missouri’s economy is missing out on $1.35 billion due to childcare issues, with 28% of people reporting they, or someone in their household, has left a job, not taken a job or changed jobs because of childcare problems in the last 12 months.

But there are solutions, experts say, to the complicated childcare equation. Increasing public funding for early childhood development, for one. Plus, workplaces that offer flexible hours, pre-tax benefits for dependent care and even on-site childcare.

“To have an on-site daycare right across the street from where you work, it’s just a nice peace of mind,” says Angela Schneider.

Angela works for Purina in downtown St. Louis, which has offered on-site daycare for 30 years.

“It’s convenience, the education these kids are getting, the safety while they are here. Also, it is the community we have within the employee base,” Angela says.

There are no waitlists there, just quality care. It’s a welcome relief for working parents trying to balance it all.

Back in University City, Kelly finally got word that Logan will have a daycare spot in June.

“I know we are in a lucky position but not all families are like this,” says Kelly.

The childcare equation gets even more difficult for families with multiple kids, and experts say, it’s often hardest in communities of color and for single moms. Many people have to rely on a combination of care, including grandparents or other caregivers, just to get by.

Parents can find a lot more resources from Child Care Aware of Missouri.