STILWELL, Okla. — When Matthew Brunk took a job as a school principal in Stilwell, Oklahoma, he commuted to work from a larger community almost an hour away.
He and his wife faced a major hurdle in moving back to Brunk’s hometown — there was no day care facility for their two-year-old.
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“I mean, talk about panic,” he said. “We had no idea what we were going to do.”
But then Brunk brought up his struggles to the superintendent of Stilwell Public Schools, and they soon settled on a novel idea: opening up a day care for the district’s staff.
The move has helped attract more teachers to Stilwell since it opened in late 2019, said Brunk, who is now assistant superintendent of the district.
“We’ve actually hired two teachers that were not from Stilwell. They were just across the border in Arkansas and came specifically to our school because they could not find child care in their town,” he said.
The lack of day care in Stilwell isn’t an unusual case — nearly 60% of families living in rural areas don’t have access to child care, according to the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group that has published studies on the issue.
That leaves rural families to cobble child care together with friends and family or drive miles to the nearest day care. It sometimes means one parent has to give up their job entirely.
The severity of the issue most recently grabbed the American Farm Bureau Federation’s attention. The agriculture organization recently listed increasing access to child care in rural communities as a priority for the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill.
Emily Buckman, director of government affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, specializes in rural affairs for the organization and said the move came about after hearing concerns from young farmers and ranchers.
“They see it as one of those elements that is kind of a make or break for folks wanting to live the rural life,” she said. “And we see [young farmers, ranchers and rural folks] as the future of our organization, so we certainly want to listen to their concerns, and ensure that those are heard as we look forward to this next farm bill.”
Increasing access to child care in rural areas is important to families, but it’s also an economic development issue, said Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist and an associate professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University.
“When families don’t have access to child care, somebody needs to leave the workforce to stay home and take care of the children,” Inwood said. “So that’s sacrificing additional household income.”
Parents leaving the workforce will cost the U.S. economy an estimated $32 to $50 billion dollars over the next 10 years through direct losses of household and business taxes, loss of productivity and household income, according to the Bipartisan Policy Insitute.
Ashley Fajkowski is a mom of three living on the outskirts of Rolla, Missouri. She left her job in 2014 to care for her first child while her husband worked. She had hoped to return to work but found the only child care options she was comfortable with were at least an hour away from town.
“We were really surprised having moved from St. Louis that there was no child care unless you went through a church or an in-home sort of day care,” Fajkowski said.
When her son entered kindergarten in 2020, Fajkowski planned to reenter the workforce. But weeks after she was offered a job as a social worker, she learned she was pregnant with twins.
“I mean, the decision kind of made itself, but I really struggled with it a lot, especially at first,” she said. “I was so ready to return to work.”
Now Fajkowski said she and her husband are hoping to move out of their small town to be closer to family members and more day care options.
The Fajkowskis’ struggle to find child care is not unique.
Nearly 30% of Missouri parents reported leaving a job or not taking a job in the last 12 months because of issues accessing child care, according to a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
But it’s an issue that disproportionately affects women, and COVID-19 only exacerbated it, said Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of United Women’s Empowerment.
“The most critical issue in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma we know from our research reports is child care is the most significant economic barrier holding women back,” she said.
She said families in rural areas have even fewer options.
“It’s not uncommon in rural communities, that on Monday, Tuesday, you take your child to one location. Wednesday, Thursday, you’ve moved to another location; just piecing it together because of lack of resources,” Doyle said.
“And we’re just looking at this point of availability, we’re not even talking about accreditation or quality; it’s just looking at, ‘I just need to get to work.’”
As of November 2022, the child care sector has lost about 8% of its pre-pandemic workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Doyle said United WE approaches the lack of child care accessibility as a workforce development issue. Its Status of Women in Missouri report highlights how more child care facilities would help meet the demand and better pay would retain child care workers. State licensing regulations could also be streamlined, Doyle said, to ensure quality care but also speed up establishing new facilities.
There are no simple solutions to creating access to quality child care for rural areas, according to Inwood, the rural sociologist.
“It’s both having the presence of child care, but also the degree to which it’s affordable,” Inwood said. “It’s also a quality place that you feel comfortable leaving your children.”
One proposal she and a colleague have made is to create an experimental program through USDA Rural Development and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Joint Resource Guide to make funds available for communities to implement the type of child care they need.
“That may be funds to actually build facilities, pay individuals to expand hours or use it for professional development of in-home care providers,” Inwood said.
Inwood said she and her colleague would then analyze how the funds were used and assess what seemed to work best and help scale up the program to target best practices.
As for the Stilwell Schools Day Care, Brunk said there’s a waitlist for families. But the district will open a larger facility at the end of the month, expanding care from 12 children up to 20.
“We don’t want anybody that’s great for our school system and great for our kids to turn down a position because of the lack of child care in the community,” he said.
Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.