Work the land or mind the kids: childcare crisis hits US farm belt

Children at the new Appletree child development center in Rensselaer, Indiana, on September 18. Appleseed Childhood Education/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Children at the new Appletree child development center in Rensselaer, Indiana, on September 18. Appleseed Childhood Education/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

What’s the context?

Rural areas face childcare crisis as centers close and parents juggle work with kid care

  • End of $50 billion in federal aid for childcare
  • Rural centers especially hard hit
  • New daycare models rest on public, private sectors 

WASHINGTON - Childcare used to be a parent's job - now government and business are increasingly getting in on the act as rising daycare closures across rural America force many to choose between working a job and minding the kids.

Always low on funds and short of prestige - day care often translates into small, female-run operations - childcare is coming under unprecedented threat as income lags costs, with rural care most at risk.

The result: businesses, local government and the state are all being pulled deeper into the daycare sector to inject much-needed economic stability into the farm belt.

Their investment frees up parents to work and shows prospective new residents that vital services are on tap.

"It's a paradigm shift," said Kendell Culp, an Indiana state representative and vice president of the Indiana Farm Bureau.

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"Child care has always been seen as a social issue that families need to provide and shouldn’t be a government funding responsibility."

What has changed, Culp said, is a recognition of what is needed to keep small farming hubs stable and sustainable.

"We see the need for local communities to grow and prosper," he said. "We need to attract that next generation to come back home and back to the farm."

The northwestern Indiana town of Rensselaer became a case in point when it lost its main childcare center five years ago.

Jordan Lindahl's son was less than a year old when the center unexpectedly closed, presenting the family with a major scheduling dilemma and no good choices to fall back on.

Both parents work in agriculture and typically need child minding from early morning until evening, a predicament shared by many other parents in a town with 6,000 residents.

"There were very limited options," she recalled, noting the newly closed center was the only accredited provider around.

A few small, in-home centers quickly filled, and the nearest licensed options were too far away.

"It doesn't make sense for a parent to have to drive a half-hour out of their way just for child care," Lindahl, now 32, told Context.

It prompted existential worries for fellow parent Adam Alson, a corn and soybean farmer who had similarly depended on the daycare center to mind his kids while he tended the farm.

Ever since, Alson has been spearheading a bottom-up effort to give local families a new option – and to fix what is widely seen as an untenable, undervalued industry.

In March, Alson opened the 73-seat Appletree Rensselaer – the town’s only licensed provider - after he succeeded in winning financial support from local officials and businesses.

Lindahl’s daughter now attends; after patching together half-day sessions with other part-time programs over the years, her son is now happily enrolled in kindergarten.

Without the new center, some parents may have decided to quit work – or move to somewhere that did offer such services.

"This is about the viability of our community, and this is economic development. This is essential infrastructure for our community," Alson said.

The county is increasing support for the Rensselaer project next year, backing a similar project nearby and is open to supporting a third center, too, said Rein Bontreger, president of the Jasper County Commissioners, the local elected body.

"We can't fund the whole thing, but we do see it as an important investment," he said by phone.

This novel mix of public, private and business support is a model that supporters say is widely needed in rural areas - both across Indiana and beyond.

The powerful American Farm Bureau lobby group has even included childcare as a key priority for a new farm bill, the massive five-year legislation that expires this month.

'Public problem'

At the root of the childcare crisis is chronic undervaluing that stretches back decades, a little-noted status quo that came to the fore in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a think tank.

"People have always pushed this mindset that this is an individual family problem," she said.

But when the pandemic hit, everything changed.

"By everyone being in it together in such a visible way (during the pandemic), it shifted the mindset to: 'this is a public problem, and it can have public solutions.'"

The coronavirus crisis prompted an unprecedented $50 billion in federal support for childcare - an emergency injection of money that runs out this month.

That aid went to about 220,000 providers across the country, Kashen said, and offered insight into a possible new future.

"It showed us what it would look like if the federal government would invest in childcare – give stability to providers, families and children," said Kashen.

And pulling the federal plug now will further weaken an industry that was already teetering pre-pandemic, she said.

Some lawmakers in Congress want a $16-billion aid extension.

In a June report, Kashen predicted some states would lose a third to half of their childcare options when the aid stops, affecting some 3.2 million children and risking $10.6 billion in lost economic activity a year.

The childcare gap is already particularly wide in rural areas, said Linda K. Smith, director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank.

Smith said the proportion of families with unmet childcare needs stood at 35% in rural areas versus 28% in urban areas.

"We have a failing business model of childcare in this country," she said. "We have small, mostly women-operated businesses where basically it costs more to produce reasonable-quality child care than parents can afford to pay."

There are not many options, she said, "other than some kind of public funding to make up the gap".

Yet Smith also points to new momentum, including efforts in Congress to fund more care top-down along with "huge strides" in persuading the private sector of the workplace benefits to be reaped from pledging support. 

"Businesses are coming to the table and saying, 'we have a problem, how can we help?'"

Childcare desert

That has been the focus in Great Falls, Montana, where local business leaders this year helped launch a new childcare center – with the aim now of bringing in the local business community and converting the effort to a cooperative.

Even before the pandemic, the area could only offer daycare spots to one in three children in need, said Shane Etzwiler, president and CEO of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

So the issue of childcare "has always been out there for us, but now it's become critical. With COVID on the sidelines, it’s critical to get people back into the workforce," he said.

On average, families in Montana must spend roughly one in every three dollars they earn on childcare, said Scott Wolff, director of workforce development with the Chamber.

That complicates efforts to boost the local economy, including farming – the area is among the world’s top producers of wheat, barley and more.

"(Parents) know that Montana is a child-care desert," Wolff said, "and it's cheaper for them not to work than to go to work and incur the massive expense involved with putting their kids in day care."

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)

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