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In Race for Child Care, Rural Families — and Rural Economies — Face an Especially Steep Climb

For Angela, a mother of two in southern Missouri, great lengths were necessary to secure child care for her kids.

“I actually told my day care I was pregnant with my second before any of my family to secure a spot for him as a child under two,” she says. “It is wild to me that I lined up both my day cares a year prior to needing them.”

Despite those efforts, Angela describes also having to ask friends and family to watch her kids so she could return to work, due to gaps between maternity leave and the soonest available child care opening. She is far from alone in these challenges.

Across America, about half of the population lives somewhere with inadequate access to child care, so called “child care deserts.” According to a 2018 report by the Center for American Progress, that number goes up to 59% for residents in rural communities — in Missouri, where Angela lives, it’s seven out of 10 rural residents who face this dilemma. These child care deserts are areas where fewer than one third of parents are able to find available openings at a licensed child care provider.

 

A 2022 study from the Saint Louis Federal Reserve offers further evidence, showing that 54% of Missourians live in a place where there are more than three times as many children as there are licensed child care spots. In cases where parents work night shifts or where the children have special needs, the availability of child care openings drops to nearly zero.

“It was hard with my first child, because she is on the autism spectrum, and a lot of places or private sitters around here aren’t really equipped to handle children with special needs,” says Joanna, another Missouri mom. “I couldn’t always find a backup sitter when her sitter got sick, which caused me to miss work.”

Missouri ranks near the higher end when it comes to the prevalence of areas with limited child care access (Full chart available at childcaredeserts.org).

Impact on Families

Even when families can find available openings for child care, the cost can be too high. According to Child Care Aware of America, the average cost at a child care center in Missouri was $10,555 per year in 2021. That represents about 11% of the median income of a married family with one child and as much as 40% of the median income in single-parent families. For families struggling near the federal poverty level, the expense of child care could climb to account for the majority or nearly the entirety of their income.

These burdens exist across most U.S. states, where annual child care costs range from about $7,000 to more than $20,000 per child. Even states on the lower end of that range fail to meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendation that families should have to spend no more than 7% of their household income on child care. As far back as 2017, child care has been the single largest household expense across much of the country, coming second only to the costs of housing in the Western U.S.

A chart from a Child Care Aware America report, “The U.S. and the High Price of Child Care: An Examination of a Broken System,” shows the burden of child care expenses across the U.S.

Many parents are unable to overcome that cost barrier. According to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the St. Louis Fed, the most common reasons mothers gave for why they were not in the workforce were family responsibilities and the inability to arrange child care. This goes a long way toward explaining why only 65% to 75% of mothers of young children are participating in workforce, whereas 95% of fathers are. Those statistics are reflective of the reality on the ground for mothers like Joanna. “I didn’t even try to go back to work after my second daughter was born because my entire income would go to day care costs,” she says. “I would love to go to school for a Master’s in psychology, if quality, affordable day care suddenly opened up.”

Sometimes the impact takes a different shape, but the spirit is similar. Michael is a new, first-time dad as of last month, and he lives in a small town of just under 11,000.

“It’s difficult to find openings. We have looked at having my wife work third shift instead of day care. My wife has a good job as a production machinist. She is making the switch because the cost of day care would be too big an impact on our current living conditions,” he explains. “Thankfully her job gives her the option to do this, but this is going to be hard on us. I am not going to see my wife much for the next few years.”

Impact on the Economy

Missouri dad Michael in a selfie with his first child (Photo provided).

The impact of child care costs and shortages ripple beyond individual families into the larger economy. According to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute, if Missouri were to cap child care costs at 7% of income that would expand the state’s economy by $2.8 billion.

Although early child care and education are often looked at as private concerns, rather than public issues, research is starting to show some rationale for changing that approach.

The public return from providing quality options for early childhood development reach far beyond the personal benefit. One of the clearest examples comes from Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who points to returns as high as $16 for every $1 invested. Those numbers speak to long-range effects, beyond the immediate economic growth mentioned above. 

Politicians and community advocates are aware of the problem and are working to find solutions. Jessica Piper, a recent, first-time candidate for the Missouri state legislature, lost her campaign but is still focused on the child care challenges in her area.

“The lack of child care is not just about jobs in the community, but also hurts people’s ability to keep their farms afloat,” she says. “Counties in my district only have openings for less than 20% of what we need.”

In rural areas where family farms still account for a significant portion of the economy, the loss of more small producers would perpetuate the downward slide of the past few decades.

Robin Phillips, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, explains that the impact isn’t limited to businesses that are already in Missouri, as the lack of licensed child care providers is also consistently ranked among the most important measures of “quality of life,” which are key for attracting new companies and workers to the state.

There are multiple dimensions of economic impact caused by a lack of affordable child care, Phillips says. The families she has worked with and talked to are saving less, working less, spending less, and even deciding to have fewer children. Each of those translates to decreased income tax revenues, lower sales tax revenues, higher employee absenteeism and turnover, and lost productivity even for those who are in the workforce.

Citing research from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Phillips pegged the impact from absenteeism and turnover due to child care gaps at $1.07 billion. Another marker of how child care scarcity spills over beyond the direct, first-hand experience of families with young children.

Unsurprisingly, these challenges have been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Phillips,  Missouri has lost more than 12% of its child care businesses since the start of the pandemic, and many of those will not come back.

As dire as the situation may appear, there is a growing understanding of the issues and great incentive for experts and innovators to find solutions. Whether it’s to improve the prospects for attracting and growing businesses in small-town America or to boost available rural workforce by helping women return to work or pursue advanced degrees, addressing child care challenges represents a significant piece of the rural prosperity puzzle. So much can start with ensuring a good supply of quality, licensed day care in more communities.

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