Increasing high-quality, affordable child care in rural Kansas
By Tate Mullen
December 16, 2019
High-quality, affordable child care is essential for Kansas children and their families. Increasing the supply for quality providers and investing in early childhood education produces positive academic, health, and social outcomes. Unfortunately, in rural areas of Kansas, there is less access to these important programs, leaving working families to face a shortage of child care options.
When high-quality child care is inaccessible, unaffordable, or both, working families are faced with painful decisions. Parents might drop out of the labor force to stay home and care for their children, forgoing an income that sustains their basic needs. Or parents might turn to substandard care in order to remain employed. But policymakers can do more to get rid of these harsh, unnecessary choices. Policy changes can be implemented allowing rural families greater access to affordable, high-quality child care. Increasing eligibility and enrollment to the state’s Child Care Assistance program, as well as providing incentives for child care providers can help working families afford and secure child care.
Too few child care providers to meet demand
Kansas child care is served primarily through licensed home-based care or child care centers. Child care centers include larger groups of children in a facility. Licensed, home-based care operates with smaller groups of children within an inspected and approved private residence.
Despite these options, children and families are greatly underserved, especially in rural communities. According to the 2019 KIDS Count data , nearly half of rural Kansas counties do not have a child care center option. While these counties have home-based care options, the number of home-based care facilities throughout rural Kansas is not substantial enough to meet the demand. Including both types of child care options, rural counties have roughly half of the capacity to meet the potential demand.
Compounding the problem is a lack of access to child care during nontraditional hours, such as evenings, overnight and weekends, which affect the “lowest-income workers who face the most irregular work schedules.” Those in rural communities typically have higher rates of poverty and lower median household incomes, with frontier and rural counties making roughly $9,800 and $5,600 less than the state’s median household income in 2017 ($56,382).
Too costly, particularly for low-income working families
The cost of child care can be prohibitive. The average annual cost of infant care in Kansas is $11,222, or $935 per month, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The high cost of child care puts strain on many Kansas families, but particularly for low-income working families. In frontier and rural Kansas, due to lower median household incomes than the overall state, infant care for one child would take up more than 20 percent of the median household income based on the average annual cost. This high cost is three times more than the recommendation from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services: 7 percent of household income.
The Child Care Assistance program helps families pay for child care by providing financial assistance to low-income, working families. Research demonstrates families receiving child care assistance are more likely to be employed and have higher incomes. Unfortunately, while the benefit of child care assistance is recognized, there has been a steady decline in the number of children participating in the Kansas Child Care Assistance program. From 2008 to 2018, the number of children receiving child care assistance in Kansas has decreased by more than half, from 21,211 to 9,263 (a decrease of nearly 12,000 children).
While child care assistance is available for eligible Kansas families, not every eligible family receives assistance. Between 2012–2016, the average monthly number of children eligible under Kansas eligibility rules was 122,006. However, in 2016, the average monthly number of Kansas children receiving child care assistance was 11,214, or only 9 percent of eligible children.
Policy solutions to increase affordability and supply of child care
- Increase the provider reimbursement rates: Set rates at the 75th percentile of the most recent Kansas Department of Children and Families market rate survey for the Child Care Assistance program. Increasing the subsidy rate can help encourage providers to participate in the program, which could increase supply across the state. The provider rate could also be further increased for providers serving children outside traditional daytime and weekday hours to reward filling the need for nontraditional hour care.
- Pay child care providers a living wage: The average child care worker in Kansas is paid only $19,981 annually. Increasing wages for the child care providers who keep our youngest residents happy, healthy, and safe can help ensure there is an adequate workforce to staff child care facilities.
- Make it easier for working families to participate in the Child Care Assistance program: The Child Care Assistance program is instrumental in lowering the cost of child care for parents by offsetting the high cost of child care for families who qualify based on income. Policy changes are needed to make it easier for working families to enroll and stay enrolled in the Child Care Assistance program through simplifying the application and additional agency outreach to educate potential participants about the program.
 Frontier counties are defined as counties who have less than 6 people per resident square mile. Rural counties are defined as counties who have less than 20 people per resident square mile.