Report Shows Families in Arkansas Are Facing More Challenges in Accessing Child Care
State remains near bottom in measures of child health, poverty, teen pregnancy
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Arkansas is one of the top states where families struggle most to access quality child care, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report released Wednesday.
From 2020 to 2021, nearly 15% of Arkansas children from birth to 5 years old lived in families in which someone quit, changed or refused a job because of child care problems. Arkansas’ rate is among the five worst in the country.
The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book analyzes data from 16 indicators in four domains — family and community, economic well-being, education and health — and ranks states in overall child well-being. Arkansas earned an overall ranking of 43rd for the second year.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a member of the KIDS COUNT network, provided a preview of the report last week. Executive director Keesa Smith said reviewing this data annually is important because it’s critical to make policy decisions from an informed place.
“While I know that there are still hurdles that we are trying to get over as a state because of the impact of the pandemic, I think this data will show that we still have a long way to go in improving the lives of our children,” Smith said.
Arkansas’ child care challenges reflect a national trend of a lack of affordable and accessible child care that often causes parents to miss work or quit jobs, negatively affecting the workforce and the economy.
The country’s infant-toddler child care crisis costs $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue annually, according to a ReadyNation report released in February. That’s more than double the cost reported in 2018.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order in April aimed at finding ways to make child care more affordable and accessible.
These national reports are supported by the findings of the Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women, which issued its first report in nearly 50 years in 2022. The challenge of finding quality care underlies many other challenges facing women in Arkansas because the burden of child care largely falls to women, chair Alison Williams said in December.
“COVID-19 exacerbated long-standing challenges, especially for those women in rural communities who may have already had difficulty accessing quality child care due to the clustering of child care in more heavily populated areas, transportation challenges or availability for second and third shift workers,” Williams said.
Although the annual KIDS COUNT report doesn’t typically look at child care, education policy director Olivia Gardner said it’s a crucial area of focus for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families because half of Arkansas’ kids are in nonparental care for at least 10 hours a week. Many will spend as much as 11,500 hours in child care and pre-K, and early childhood educators play an important role in shaping children’s brains, Gardner said.
“Programs are struggling between the need to pay for the wages worthy of brain-building educators, while knowing all too well that Arkansas families are really struggling to pay for child care at the current market rates,” she said.
The hourly median wage for early childhood educators in Arkansas was $12.36 an hour, according to the report. Additionally, 50% of early childhood educators struggled to pay for basic necessities, and low wages contribute to a higher level of turnover in the field, Gardner said.
“It’s especially difficult to balance the budget of a child care center or a program when caring for infants and toddlers, and that’s because the costs are just higher for programs to care for younger children,” she said. “And so this contributes to why we’re seeing a lack of options for families.”
The annual price of center-based toddler care in Arkansas was about $6,800 in 2021 while family child care cost around $5,400, Gardner said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends child care not exceed 7% of a household’s budget, but most middle-income families are paying substantially more, she said.
However, Gardner said availability and accessibility are greater problems than affordability.
“Even though other states have much higher costs, Arkansas families are still struggling just as much to find child care, and that discrepancy highlights the need for increased availability and accessibility in Arkansas while still trying to keep costs affordable for parents,” she said.
Quality can also be an issue for parents if there’s not a place they feel comfortable leaving their child. Meeting minimum licensing standards, which target health and safety practices, doesn’t ensure quality components that are tied more closely to learning standards, Gardner said.
This is another example of how the quality of early childhood education is compromised by low teacher compensation, she said.
“Without state investment in child care programs, the solution for the number of spots available is left to child care businesses, which are then forced to either burden families with higher costs or to underpay their childcare workers,” Gardner said. “And Arkansas’ 22% child poverty rate…makes it clear that our families cannot afford to pay higher child care costs, nor can child care workers, who are often mothers themselves, afford to make less than they already do.”
The 2023 KIDS COUNT report ranks Arkansas 42nd in health with 9.5% of births resulting in low-weight babies, 6% of children lacking health insurance and 37% of kids ages 10 to 17 being overweight.
AACF health policy director Loretta Alexander said they’re concerned about low-birthweight babies because they often have increased risk of infant mortality and challenging outcomes like developmental problems. The rate of low-birthweight babies is higher among Black women at 16.5%.
A key factor contributing to low birthweight is the pervasiveness of maternity care deserts in Arkansas, especially in rural areas, Alexander said. Defined as counties without any hospitals or birth centers offering obstetric care and without any obstetric providers, almost half of Arkansas counties are considered to be maternity care deserts, she said.
In 2021, nearly 72% of infants were born to women receiving adequate prenatal care in Arkansas. A potential policy solution to increase that percentage is providing immediate Medicaid coverage to women who are likely to qualify so they can begin prenatal care right away, Alexander said.
Six percent of Arkansas children are uninsured, slightly above the national average of 5%. The number of uninsured Arkansas children reached a low of 4% in 2012 before starting to climb in 2018. Even with Medicaid termination suspended for three years during the public health emergency, 43,000 children remained uninsured in Arkansas, Alexander said.
In January, the Medicaid program identified more than 150,000 kids at risk of losing their coverage with the end of the public health emergency, she said, and in April, Medicaid renewals led to more than 29,000 kids losing health coverage.
Alexander said they expect more kids to continue losing coverage in the coming months before the Department of Human Services can sort out the problems of closing cases of kids who are still eligible.
Last week, DHS reported nearly 35,000 Arkansans were dropped from the state’s Medicaid program in May because they did not provide required information to determine if they remained eligible for coverage. More than 40,000 Arkansans lost Medicaid coverage in April because their eligibility was left unknown.
“Going forward, the state could slow down the process of the renewals to ensure that those losing coverage truly are ineligible based on income rather than procedural reasons,” Alexander said.
Family and community
With a ranking of 46th, Family and Community is the domain where Arkansas ranked the lowest this year. This area’s indicators include teen births, children living in high-poverty areas, single-parent families and kids growing up in a household in which no one has a high school diploma.
Even though Arkansas has made incremental improvements over the last decade, the state continues to have a low ranking because it hasn’t kept up with the gains of other states, AACF Northwest Arkansas director Laura Kellams said.
For example, Arkansas still ranks last in teen births, even though the teen birth rate has dropped from 51 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 a decade ago to 27 births per 1,000 teens in 2021.
States that perform best in this area have about a fifth of Arkansas’ teen birth rate, and they typically have laws requiring comprehensive sex education, they make contraception access easier, or both, Kellams said.
“Other states have made bigger gains over this last decade, and we would argue that one of the reasons for that is that Arkansas doesn’t require comprehensive sex education,” she said. “And if it is taught, the only requirement is that it emphasizes abstinence, not that the education be comprehensive or scientifically-based.”
An AACF report published last year indicated that Arkansas teens aren’t more sexually active than their peers in other states. The difference is a lack of information and lack of access to the most effective kinds of contraception, Kellams said.
Economics and education
Arkansas ranked 40th in economic well-being in this year’s report. The “significant and most alarming indicator” in this area is that 22% of Arkansas children live in poverty, AACF communications director Brooke Edwards said.
Arkansas is ranked 45th in child poverty, a factor that affects many of the other indicators examined by the report, Edwards said.
“For me, it’s the standard. If your child poverty rate is high, then you’re just not doing your job as a state,” she said.
Arkansas has consistently ranked in the bottom 10 states overall and on specific child well-being indicators, including this year ranking 44th for teens not in school and not working, and 43rd for 8th graders not proficient in math.
Ten percent of teens ages 16 to 19 are not attending school or working, while 81% of 8th graders scored below proficiency in math. That’s a decline from 73% in 2019.
Seventy percent of 4th graders scored below proficient in reading, dipping slightly from 69% in 2019. Gardner noted that while the state’s education scores were low prior to the pandemic as well, there is a nationwide downward trend in math and reading because the data is starting to reflect the effects of the pandemic.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: email@example.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.
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