Child Care Access and Affordability for Missouri’s Working Families

March 29, 2022

The COVID-19 recession has been labeled a “she-cession” because of its disproportionate impact on women. But perhaps a more accurate—albeit less catchy—term would be “mom-cession.” Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that mothers of young children (under age 6) accounted for a disproportionate share of COVID-19-related employment loss. Yet mothers continue to comprise a sizable portion of the workforce. In Missouri, over a quarter of the prime-age workforce comprises mothers of minors, and 39% of them are mothers of young children.

Access to quality, affordable child care supports mothers' ability to work, pay bills and stay housed; increases Missouri’s tax revenue; and helps make Missouri a state in which the workforce, families and children can thrive.

Severe Lack of Access, Particularly for Younger Children

Child care is critically tied to workforce participation, particularly for mothers, who must often make trade-offs between care and work. Mothers in the U.S. have much lower labor force participation rates when their children are young (during both pandemic and non-pandemic times), whereas the age of the children has little effect on fathers’ labor force participation. Notwithstanding, in Missouri, more than two-thirds of households with young children have all parents who are present in the household in the labor force, indicating that the availability of child care is important for the economy. Indeed, in the U.S., family responsibilities and the inability to arrange child care were the top two reasons why mothers of young children who wanted jobs weren’t looking for them in 2021.

Despite evidence that early childhood education is important for the current and future well-being of children, families and the economy, that care is hard to find. More than half (54%) of Missourians live in a child care desert, meaning they are in an area that has either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots. This is especially true of rural and low-income areas, limiting opportunities for economic advancement for mothers and fathers in these locations. Moreover, the vast majority of center-based providers do not operate between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., making it that much more difficult for parents of young children to accept jobs with long hours or shift work.

As a country, we fund our children’s education with free, universal public schooling beginning at kindergarten. But preschool-age children, just one to two years younger, are underserved, with only 9% of 3- and 4-year-old Missourians attending public preschool. Younger children face similar difficulties with access. The Office of Head Start’s Performance Indicator Report states that Early Head Start programs, which serve children under age 3 who are in poverty, reach only 7% of eligible Missourians. The National Institute for Early Education Research found that while Missouri improved access to preschool programs in 2020, it still ranked in the bottom half of states in terms of access and spending per child.

The ROI on Early Care and Education Investments

Investing in our most vulnerable citizens—young children, particularly those who are disadvantaged—is both equitable and economically efficient. Research points out that the first few years of life, during which vast amounts of learning occur, are the most critical, because children gain valuable social and cognitive skills. Furthermore, socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps present in kindergarten begin with preparation gaps. For example, a Springfield, Mo., Kindergarten Readiness Study found that “51.1% of students who did not attend a formal preschool were reported as ‘not ready’ [for kindergarten] as compared to 17.8% of their preschool-attending peers” in 2018.

Children from lower-income families have less access to high-quality early care and education, putting them at a disadvantage early in life. In fact, market rates are unaffordable for most American families, meaning that more than 7% of the family’s annual income is spent on child care, the federal standard for affordability. The average cost of center-based infant child care in Missouri was $9,880 in 2020, according to Child Care Aware of America. This was nearly 12% of the median income for a married family, but 40% of the median income of a single parent. Even with subsidies (which reach one in six eligible families) and providers charging less than the true cost of care, this expense remains burdensome, hampering economic stability and making economic mobility all but impossible.

While early care and education are often treated as private concerns, research has shown that public returns from quality early childhood development programs are even larger than personal returns: Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, economist James Heckman and others suggests a $7 to $13 return per $1 invested. Potential future returns are large, but they could have more immediate effects as well through parents’ workforce participation. According to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute, capping child care at 7% of income could expand Missouri’s economy by $2.8 billion. Moreover, returns on investment are larger the earlier they are made. Yet, the U.S. spent 0.3% of gross domestic product in 2017—less than half the average of other industrialized countries—on early care and education, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Investing in the Present and Future of Missouri

Missourians recognize the wide-ranging benefits of child care. For example, the Show Me Strong Recovery Task Force 2022 recommendations include improving child care availability and affordability to help support small businesses. Early childhood programs in Missouri were consolidated under a single Office of Childhood in early 2021 to streamline agencies, with the recognition that these programs are important for children’s well-being and success and for the future workforce.

Prioritizing quality child care today may facilitate the betterment of Missourians tomorrow. Researchers have studied a number of considerations that may be implemented or expanded to support working mothers and their families, including to:

About the Author
Ana Hernández Kent
Ana Hernández Kent

Ana Hernández Kent is a senior researcher with the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Her research interests include economic disparities and the role of systemic biases and historical factors in wealth outcomes. Read more about Ana’s research.

Ana Hernández Kent
Ana Hernández Kent

Ana Hernández Kent is a senior researcher with the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Her research interests include economic disparities and the role of systemic biases and historical factors in wealth outcomes. Read more about Ana’s research.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.


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