Child care woes are rare subject of agreement in Missouri Capitol


JEFFERSON CITY — Amid partisan wrangling on a host of other issues, Missouri policymakers appear on track to pump more resources into child care programs this year.

As the Republican-controlled state Legislature returned to action this week, leaders on both sides of the aisle signaled they support efforts to boost the industry via higher pay for child care workers and other incentives, including possibly giving property tax breaks to child care facilities.

The moves, which will unfold and evolve over the next five months, could help get more people into jobs left unfilled by those who are staying at home caring for their kids because of a lack of access to day care programs.

“We know we have a workforce problem,” Senate President Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters after the Senate adjourned for the week Thursday. “This isn’t a new problem.”

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“Businesses are asking for child care,” added Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence. “It’s all about workforce development.”

That bipartisan sentiment meshes with Republican Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Each have pushed for more funding for preschool services in recent years.

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the number of child care programs has not recovered from pre-pandemic levels.

Before COVID-19-related shutdowns, there were more than 4,400 regulated child care programs, including licensed, license-exempt, and subsidy providers. At the peak of the pandemic there were only 3,300 providers.

The number has increased to 3,729 providers with approximately 150 programs pending licensure, the department said.

“A recent data analysis comparing the census for young children under age six to the licensed capacity in programs indicated 42 counties are still in need of more slots for children who need care,” said DESE spokeswoman Mallory McGowin.

Economists and advocates say the nation’s lack of universal preschool and paid family leave results in fewer working women in the U.S. when compared to most industrialized nations.

As of November, the country had 8% fewer child care workers than before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A poll of businesses by the Missouri Chamber showed 78% believe the expense and difficulty in finding child care keeps a significant number of Missourians out of the workforce.

The pro-business organization is urging lawmakers to make child care a priority this year.

“Businesses across Missouri are struggling to find workers, and it’s clear that the state’s growing child care crisis is at the center of the problem,” Chamber President Dan Mehan said. “This is an urgent issue, and we are grateful that state lawmakers are focused on working with the business community to find a solution. It’s time for Missouri to become a national leader in addressing this crisis.”

A 2021 Chamber-backed study showed that the lack of available child care is costing Missouri’s economy $1.35 billion annually.

The push to improve child care offerings comes after lawmakers and Parson approved $10 million in federal emergency stimulus aid last year for businesses to add child care services. The idea was to help small businesses recover from the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the plan, companies would receive grants up to $250,000 to form partnerships with child care providers or establish dedicated child care centers to serve employees.

The program was launched in October and applications are open until Jan. 31. At least four applications have been submitted, McGowin said.

A spokeswoman for Parson suggested Thursday that he will outline his wish list for additional child care assistance when he unveils his budget proposal for next fiscal year later this month.

“Child care is important to Governor Parson. He knows how important child care is the workforce and to our Missouri families,” said Kelli Jones.

In addition to boosting pay for child care workers, Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, introduced legislation Wednesday that would exempt property taxes on buildings used primarily as day care businesses.

That could help reduce some of the overhead associated with operating a facility.

Rowden said plans to help day care facilities remain in flux.

“We’ll try to do it in the most fiscally responsible way possible,” Rowden said.

Said Rizzo, “We’re more than willing to work with the Missouri Chamber.”

Robert Cohen has been a staff photographer at the Post-Dispatch for 23 years. His work following unrest in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown was part of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography awarded to the photo staff. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2010 for work documenting the plight of homeless families living in suburban motels during the recession. Most recently in 2021 he was a finalist for ‘Photographer of the Year’ in the Pictures of the Year International competition. 

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