When the most recent Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book was released last week, a number of troubling statistics presented itself for Arkansas. Improving child care and early childhood education could be the most pivotal investment Arkansas could make to turn the trajectory on child well-being, said Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families Executive Director Keesa Smith.
The report found the average annual cost to families for center-based child care for toddlers in Arkansas was $6,806. That amount equaled 25% of the median income of a single mother and 8% of the income made by a married couple with children. Only Mississippi was cheaper at $4,382. The report found that 15% of Arkansas children were part of families who had undergone job changes due to child care problems.
“In a state like Arkansas, we do have overall affordable childcare when parents are looking. We do know that childcare is one of the greatest expenses when individuals have children. But our state, because of the economy here generally, individuals can afford the childcare. However, the biggest problem is that when parents are out there looking for childcare, first and foremost, there’s very limited availability for individuals that have infants and toddlers. Individuals can find childcare if they have older children, but very few daycares have the slots needed for infants and and toddlers,” said Smith, who appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics.
“What that means is that if you are a new parent and you are looking to return to the workforce, you may not have somewhere for your infant or your small child to go in order for you to go back into the workforce, which we know definitely drives, makes it a significant economic issue for our state that that’s not available.”
Multiple studies show that when children are ages 0-5, their brains are most actively developing. Lack of stimulation in these early years – be it through child care or parenting – can lead to a lifetime of academic and economic struggle.
While the state is investing meaningfully in teacher salaries at the K-12 level, most early childhood and child care workers make somewhere near minimum wage. It’s a hindrance to recruiting more to this profession and, in turn, leads to shortages of available slots in child care facilities.
“Our childcare workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the state and actually in the country. They’re making about what individuals who are working in fast food are making, and yet their work is so significant in the development of our children,” Smith said. “What we know, which was highlighted during the pandemic, is that childcare workers were leaving in droves. They could easily find jobs that paid them a significantly higher wage. I think, as a state, we are going to have to say that those jobs are important, especially considering what role those individuals play in the development of our children, and that investment I think is going to be extremely, extremely critical.”
Arkansas ranked 43rd in overall child well-being, but the statistics were poor in many other categories, especially reading and math.
Seventy percent of the state’s fourth-graders were not proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2022, compared to 69% in 2019. The state slipped significantly in eighth grade math, with 81% of Arkansas students not proficient on the NAEP in 2022 compared to 73% in 2019. And, the state ranked 40th in the economic well-being domain, with 22% of its children, or 155,000, living in poverty in 2021, the same percentage as in 2019.
But for Smith, it still comes back to the earliest years of a child’s life.
“We’ve got to go back and look at the advancement that Arkansas made with pre-K and early childhood education. Several years ago, we created the Arkansas Better Chance Program. We made an investment. And since then, there’s been one-time funding, but that has waned significantly. I think, as a state, we really need to look back and see how far we came. With those one-time investments, we really leapfrogged other states because we recognized the importance of laying that early foundation for children. And we should really look back at what investment we can make in pre-K and early childhood education that will put our children on the right path,” she said.
You can watch Smith’s full interview in the video below.