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Child care can cost more than a mortgage in Kansas, but providers can barely afford to stay open

A stuffed frog sits on top of a cubbie at The Center, a child care center in Pittsburg, Kansas.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
At this child care provider in Pittsburg, the facility struggles to turn a profit and pay workers living wages.

Child care is expensive for families, yet it doesn't bring in enough money for providers to grow or pay workers high wages. Kansas is at a crossroads.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Ann Elliott runs one of the largest child care centers in all of Kansas.

The Family Resource Center, or The Center, in Pittsburg, Kansas, is licensed to care for over 350 kids At $145 a week for toddlers, $135 a week for 30 month to 5 year olds, and $185 a month for preschool — parents might assume Elliott and her staff are rolling in money.

They aren’t. They lose money on child care and grants help offset the loss.

“It doesn't pay for an employee to make a living wage,” Elliott said. “We've been around 25 years. So somehow we're continuing and we will continue as long as we can.”

Kansas is at a crossroads, child care providers and experts say. Child care slots are hard to come by and they are expensive. Some parents quit their jobs because child care eats up entire paychecks and it’s just cheaper to be a stay-at-home parent. Others are paying more for child care than their mortgage.

Finding infant care is especially bad. Elliott said some kids have spent more than a year on her waiting lists.

“We tell people if you're thinking about getting pregnant, get on a waiting list somewhere,” she said. “Get on a bunch of waiting lists and you need to do it right away.”

Providers say if nothing changes more day cares will close down and more staff will leave the field. Despite being an in-demand business, providers say they don’t make much money, they struggle to hire staff and just starting a business can be a headache.

Want to run a child care business in Kansas? 'It's just hard'

Elliott started her day at 5:30 a.m., cooking for the kids. She’s been cooking for the last six days because the old cook left and they haven’t been able to hire a replacement yet.

It has become a lot harder to find staff at The Center, and this is a recent problem. Those that do apply might have little experience and need to be trained from scratch.

These jobs don’t always pay well, so The Center offers perks to keep people happy, like half off of child care and $1,000 bonuses every four months. But the wages are so low that staff members themselves qualify for child care aid from the Department for Children and Families.

“Which is super, super sad,” she said.

Ann Elliott at her desk.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Ann Elliott has worked at The Center for over two decades.

Child care businesses can struggle to offer pay raises because the cost of caring for kids can exceed what parents can afford.

Infant care is the most desperately needed type of care. State regulations require one caregiver for every three infants. At $200 a week per baby, a provider loses money paying someone just $15 an hour.

Providers say the local Walmarts can pay more, and it comes without the stress of having to take care of children all day.

At The Center in Pittsburg, Elliott said she loses $9,500 a year on every infant slot and $7,000 a year on every toddler slot. The business stays a float because of grants that can offset the costs.

“Now, those ratios are more economically advantageous as the child gets older,” said Dana Stanton, a child program specialist at the Northwest Kansas Economic Innovation Center. “But it's just hard.”

Stanton works with communities to find fixes to their child care problems. She said one common barrier to success are start-up costs.

Paying for a brick-and-mortar facility is not cheap and having an in-home business does not guarantee savings.

“You think you've got a handle on everything,” Stanton said.”(Then) you think, do I have enough sippy cups? Do I have enough wipes and diapers? Do I have enough cots? And what about cribs? And how do I feed 10 kids all at once? Do I just put them up to my table? Oh, wait, they can't sit at my dining room table.”

It’s those expenses and limited income that might make some people’s time in this business limited. Multiple providers said they are seeing people retire with no workers to take their place, or younger providers open up only to close once their children age out of care.

Life of an in-home provider

That might be what happens to Trinity Johnson, who runs her business in Salina.

She used to work at an office job but she opened her own business once her daughter was born. The first few months were rocky, she said, as it is for most providers.

A state task force surveyed 500 Kansans about common issues with child care, one common complaint for providers was how complicated it was to start up a business. Licensing is slow and confusing, and it can be difficult to find useful information about the system.

Johnson stuck with it because she loves this work and dreams of opening her own child care center, but that might not happen. It’s financially risky and she is limited in how much more her business can currently grow.

“In order to expand out, I either have to hire another person or buy an actual building and I just don't make enough to afford to do that,” Johnson said. “Right now it works and I pay my bills.”

Raising rates also isn’t something some providers want to do. Multiple providers told the Kansas News Service that they need to charge more to make money and pay higher wages, but if they do charge more, many families would be priced out.

The statewide survey also found that the subsidy from the Kansas Department for Children and Families offered to low-income families does not give them enough money to comfortably afford child care. Middle income families also make too much to get the subsidy and have to pay by themselves, but they generally don’t make enough to comfortably afford it.

Tiffany Mannes, a provider in Johnson County, says she has some room to raise rates, but not much. She knows some families don’t have the financial means to pay more.

“We have a family who has three children in care. They pay more than a mortgage for child care,” she said.

Mannes has been in business for 20 years. She has a group license and runs her business with two other people. That helps families because a caretaker can take a sick day and the business will still be open. But having to pay three people makes it harder to make any profit, and she said her business has grown about as large as it can.

She can’t take on more kids because of state regulations. And she looked into a larger center but didn’t think the big cost would be worth it.

A countertop full of stuffed animals and school supplies at The Center, a child care center in Pittsburg, Kansas.
Blaise Msea
Kansas News Service
The Center in Pittsburg, Kansas, is licensed for more than 350 children at one time.

Mannes calls child care essential work. It helps kids develop, it helps other businesses grow. But no matter what she does, the money she makes just doesn’t seem to go far enough.

“I participate in the National Food Program, which some providers don't,” She said. “I accept (a child care subsidy) from DCF, which a lot of providers don't. To my knowledge, I'm doing everything that I can to be competitive and earn a living wage.”

Current solutions

Kansas is currently trying to address the issue.

The state is creating a new government office that will centralize state child care programs, which should make them easier to access. Gov. Laura Kelly did set aside $53 million for one-time bonuses for child care workers, which could be as high as $2,500. And there is a child care subsidy offered through the Department for Children and Families, but participation among providers and families is low.

Kelly Davydov is executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas. She is working on one possible solution to the infant care shortage.

Her group is helping coordinate a pilot program, called Baby Steps, that gives away thousands of dollars to providers to offset losses associated with infant care.

If a provider agrees to take on more infants, the program will provide an annual stipend so the business can raise wages to $15 an hour. A provider going from zero to one infant would get about $9,600. Going from one to two infants brings in $13,500 and jumping from two to three means $17,000.

So far, 53 providers are enrolled in the program and more than 50 new infant slots have opened up.

Davydov called it a dual-pronged approach that addresses both pay and capacity at the same time, and she said innovative ideas are needed to fix this problem. But even she worries this one pilot program isn’t enough to meet the extreme demand.

“I think about that quite a bit,” she said. “It's going to take all of us working together to solve that. That is both a challenge and also a comfort.”

The Kansas News Service spoke with a dozen people in the child care field, and solutions to the problem varied, but they generally started with the idea of the public, businesses and governments helping offset the costs of care.

That might mean legislative reform.

How are other states addressing child care shortages?

Lawmakers return to Topeka in January and it isn’t clear what solutions they could pursue in the next legislative session.

Earlier this year, legislators did approve a bill that stripped away some child care regulations. That bill would have changed adult to child ratios letting businesses take in more kids. Both the House and Senate passed the bill, but the governor vetoed it over fears it put children in unsafe conditions.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly visits a child care center
Kansas Governor's Office
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly visits a child care center.

Other states have pursued new funding models, like Michigan. There, parents, businesses and the state government all share the burden of child care, which should lower the cost to families. In New Mexico, the child care subsidy program has a higher cutoff before families have to pay out of pocket.

The Vermont State Legislature went even further, approving a new payroll tax on businesses and workers to increase funding for the child care system.

Whatever the solution, most people are feeling optimistic Kansas is on the right path to find a solution, a statewide survey said. Statewide data did say there are 6,848 more child care slots in July 2023 when compared to May 2022.

For providers like Elliott, the multiple decades in the field have all been worth it.

“It’s just the kids,” she said. “I love listening to them walk down the hall at night talking to their parents (about their day). And you know, their parents will say, ‘You did what?’ … I just love them.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.