All across Missouri, people are coming together — cheering, cowbell-playing and posting yard signs to show support for health care providers, restaurant owners, grocery store attendants, delivery drivers, first responders and other essential workers. This show of appreciation for the people on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic has become a nightly ritual — one small way Missouri residents can recognize the sacrifice that these workers make.

Noticeably absent from this list, however, are the people — predominantly women — who are caring for the children of these essential workers. When Gov. Parson shut down schools statewide, there was no mention of child care educators, and guidance provided for staying open and providing safe, ongoing care is elusive.

In Missouri alone, there are currently over 100,000 children of essential service providers and health care industry workers in need of child care. Child care educators are critical to enabling hospital staff, bus drivers, sanitation workers and many others to continue to do their jobs. They are integral to allowing businesses, government agencies and society as a whole to function.

If child care educators are essential, then why are they so often forgotten?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not created a child care crisis in the United States; it has simply brought to light what so many child care advocates have known for years: Our child care system is so broken that we cannot — and should not — put the pieces back together as they once were without thorough examination. With the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent economic fallout, the efficacy and legitimacy of our societal systems are being called into question; quality child care must be a part of this reflection.

Missouri’s child care is at a crossroads. It is both scarce and unaffordable, defying the economic principles of supply and demand. Seventy percent of children live in households where all available parents are currently working, necessitating the services of one of the 18,880 early childhood educators serving families in Missouri, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. On average in Missouri, one year of child care costs more than $9,880, which is 11.6% of median income for a household. This expense helps to trap families in a cycle of poverty, with low-income parents either allocating an unsustainable percentage of their income to child care or forcing one parent to sacrifice education or career opportunities in the name of child welfare.

This expense, however, does not translate into high wages for child care workers. Child care is one of the lowest-paid professions, with families of child care educators twice as likely as other families to live in poverty. In Missouri, the median wage for child care educators was $9.96 in 2017 — less than the living wage of $10.76. Between 1997 and 2013, child care wages have increased by only 1%, barely accounting for the increase in the cost of living.

Child care is arguably one of the most important and difficult careers. The first 2,000 days of a child’s life are critical to a child’s development, affecting the rest of their lives. While government subsidies for child care exist, it’s not enough — and many child care educators find themselves living paycheck to paycheck. According to data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and Early Care and Education Consortium, child care programs across the U.S. lost nearly 70% of their daily attendance in one week during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many stated they could not last even one week without getting paid.

Without systemic change of the child care industry, these issues will continue to force Missourians to make difficult, life-altering decisions. Families will continue to struggle to pay for care, while child care educators will sink deeper into poverty. We need our government to recognize what an effective, equitable child care system means for Missouri — opportunities for upward mobility, for high-quality early childhood education, economic growth and societal health.

While the most recent COVID-19-related stimulus bill included funding for child care programs in Missouri, it covers a mere 7% of what’s needed to keep child care businesses open, safe and sustainable, demonstrating just how little Missouri child care is recognized as one of the building blocks of the workforce responding to COVID-19.

Tonight, as you celebrate the workers on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, think about the child care educators who are the foundation of economic growth for our state.

Robin Phillips is chief executive officer of Child Care Aware of Missouri. Ms. Phillips has worked in the field of early childhood education, specifically child care systems and nonprofit management, for the past 20 years. She is a passionate advocate for young children and for a supported and valued child care educator workforce.

About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

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