Rural Parents Struggle With Childcare Crunch

Image by Katie Dehlinger

As I write, my 3-month-old son is stretched out on his back on the floor batting at his favorite blue octopus toy and cooing at it mischievously. I’ve only been back to work for a few weeks, but our babysitter has called in sick, so I’m doing double duty.

I’m fortunate to live and work in an area with numerous licensed childcare providers. Unfortunately, they all seem to have milelong wait lists. For now, I rely on my neighbor’s daughter, who is home from college for the summer, to watch my son while my husband and I work.

For many young families in rural America, informal childcare arrangements such as mine are the only option. According to the Center for American Progress, 59% of rural communities meet the definition of a childcare desert, an area with limited to no access to licensed childcare. Licensed childcare providers usually go through a rigorous certification process with the state, accept state-run financial assistance programs and offer an educational curriculum. They can be located in either a day-care center or the provider’s home.

“While rural communities may have several home-based childcare providers, many family childcare homes are only licensed to serve between six and 12 children, which may not be able to meet demand,” the report states.

Not only is childcare scarce, it’s expensive. Government guidelines suggest parents set aside 10% of their income to cover childcare costs. However, a year of day care for one child generally costs $7,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on where you live. The less money a family earns or the more children it has, the higher the percentage of earnings dedicated to childcare.

As a result, many rural families are forced to weave together a patchwork of informal childcare. Grandma watches the kids today, and tomorrow they’ll ride with Dad in the tractor while Mom is on conference calls, etc. I’ve been doing it for a week, and it feels like trying to keep five plates spinning in the air when you only have two hands. It’s not an efficient way to go about doing business.

For many families, it’s just not sustainable to keep both spouses working without a committed group of family, neighbors and friends, or day care. Yet, many families can’t give up that off-farm job without also giving up their health insurance.

Childcare may not be a business expense, but it’s an essential tool that enables farmers, their families and their workers to show up each morning and go to work.

If you are trying to attract younger talent to the farm--whether it’s family that will take over the business or someone with a specialized skill to round out your staff--having an adequate childcare solution could be a deciding factor in whether they make that leap.

Younger generations are preparing to step up and step in. If they can find someone to watch their kids, that is.

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