Since 1977, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families has worked to improve public policy, including bolstering early childhood education and supportive child care options for families. Yesterday, the latest national KIDS COUNT Data Book® was released by our partners at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And while our national ranking of 43rd in overall child well-being is concerning, the data included on child-care accessibility is particularly worth discussing.
Arkansans value hard work, and we all want our children to be safe and nurtured while their parents are at work. But in 2020-2021, 15 percent of Arkansas parents with children ages birth to 5 could not secure child care that was compatible with their work schedules and commutes. These parents had to either quit, change their positions or refuse a job because of problems with child care.
When the recent rankings were published, Arkansas was one of the five worst states on this indicator. It's also worth noting that the other states in the top five are states where child care is much more expensive on average than child care in our state.
Anecdotally, in our larger cities, child care is expensive, and it can be hard to get a spot, particularly for families with infants and toddlers. In rural Arkansas, it can be hard to find an opening that's not too far from home or work to be practical.
When the child-care system cannot meet families' needs, data shows that the people most likely to suffer are women, single parents, parents with low-paying jobs, families of color, and immigrant families.
A child-care system that does not address the needs of all families affects the children. Access to early childhood education is critical for preparing young learners to begin elementary school. Far too many of Arkansas' young children are missing out on early learning during a period of important brain development.
When the Arkansas Better Chance Pre-K program was established in 1991, Arkansas declared early childhood education a top priority and was at the forefront of investing in early childhood. Arkansas' Pre-K has required and maintained high-quality standards over the decades, aligning with benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
But state investment in programs has been stagnant for years, threatening program quality and failing to keep pace with the number of enrollments needed. In this year's Data Book, Arkansas is ranked 23rd, with 43,000 3- and 4-year-olds not attending school.
The 2023 KIDS COUNT® Data Book is a 50-state report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzing how children and families are faring using the most recent household data. It ranks states on 16 indicators, organized into four domains. Overall, Arkansas is ranked 43rd in the nation.
For Arkansas to become a better state to be and raise a kid, we need rapid and steady improvement across child well-being indicators.
Access to affordable child care could move the needle on several indicators where Arkansas ranks poorly, like child poverty (45th); children in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment (33rd); fourth-grade reading proficiency (35th); and eighth-grade math proficiency (43rd).
So how do we improve the child-care system in Arkansas? Federal funding and assistance are needed, but Arkansas leaders also must rise to this challenge.
We need greater state investment in child care, increasing program capacity without sacrificing staff pay or passing the cost burden on to parents who are already trying to balance other necessities of life. We need the state to help improve the infrastructure for home-based child-care centers, increasing access to startup and expansion capital.
And we absolutely must increase the pay for child-care workers. The child-care industry is one of the primary supporters of all other industries, and we have been failing this workforce for many years.
If you're an employer who has parents on staff, you likely know how important it is for your employees to feel confident their babies and young children are being taken care of by caring, competent people. But study after study shows our child-care workers are struggling to feed their own families, battling depression, and leaving their child-care jobs for higher-paying opportunities.
The state has a responsibility and the ability to invest in our child-care system. Relying on market forces will leave us in the same place or worse, with parents who cannot get or keep a job because they cannot find child care, and with overworked and underpaid child-care workers.
Keesa Smith is executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.