Families across the nation are facing barriers to finding and paying for quality child care. The unique experiences of rural families can exacerbate this struggle: Many rural areas of the country have experienced stalled economic growth, have higher rates of child poverty, and see young children entering kindergarten already behind their metropolitan-area peers in early reading and math skills. Access to high-quality, affordable child care is especially necessary to support family economic security and early childhood development in rural communities.
This column presents five key facts to know about child care in rural America and outlines opportunities for improving access to quality, affordable child care in rural communities.
1. On average, families in rural areas spend 12 percent of their income on child care
The cost of child care has been steadily growing, and families’ earnings have not kept pace. This has left many rural families struggling to piece together care that they can afford. New analysis from the 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) finds that in rural areas, the average family with an employed mother spends $175 each week—or $9,100 per year—on child care. This amounts to 12.2 percent of the average rural family’s income. Meanwhile, families with an employed mother in metropolitan areas spend about $260 per week, on average, comprising 10.8 percent of average family income. These differences in spending are likely due to the lower cost of living in rural communities, where for example, real estate costs and teacher wages tend to be cheaper. These factors can make it slightly less expensive to operate a child care program in a rural community, which means that providers charge parents lower tuition than in areas where the costs associated with running a child care program are higher. Despite these differences, families in rural and metropolitan communities alike are spending well above what they should be: The federal government has defined affordable child care as not exceeding 7 percent of family income.
2. Rural families use regular child care at rates similar to metropolitan families but are more likely to use home-based child care
Overall, rural and metropolitan families use regular child care at similar rates, with about 60 percent of all children and 80 percent of children with employed mothers receiving care from someone other than a parent each week. (see Figure 1) While child care attendance rates are similar, rural families are more likely to use home-based child care as their primary child care arrangement. This difference is particularly stark for preschool-age children. (see Figure 2)
Research confirms that parents of preschool-age children tend to prefer center-based child care for their children, while parents of infants and toddlers often prioritize care from a parent or relative. Despite these preferences, rural families are significantly less likely to use center-based preschool programs. When embarking on the child care search, parents need options in order to select a provider that best meets their family’s needs. Many parents are constrained to programs that are affordable and close to work or home, while parents with more resources and thus more child care options often place greater emphasis on elements of program quality such as curriculum or small class sizes. But the child care choices of rural families suggest that there may not be enough available center-based preschool programs to meet the need in these communities. These disparities in access to various care settings can have implications for child care quality and school readiness.
3. 60 percent of rural Americans live in a child care desert
Nearly two-thirds of rural families live in a child care desert, or an area where there are at least three young children for every licensed child care slot—or no licensed child care providers at all. One study of child care supply in nine states found that the lack of child care is extreme for infants and toddlers in rural areas, with babies outnumbering licensed child care slots by 9-to-1 across rural counties.
Certain characteristics of rural communities, such as smaller program sizes and dispersed populations, can make it difficult for rural child care providers to meet community needs or to stay afloat financially. For example, home-based child care programs typically have a maximum capacity of from 6 to 12 children, which may be too small to meet demand in some areas. In other areas, however, there may be not be enough families to fill a program, leaving child care providers with too little revenue to cover operating costs such as rent, utilities, and teachers’ salaries. And because rural families are dispersed over greater distances than families in metropolitan areas, some families struggle to find a conveniently located provider, with 1 in 5 families in rural areas citing location as their primary reason for difficulty finding child care.*
4. Family child care providers play an outsize role in rural child care supply
Nationally, family child care providers represent one-fifth of all licensed child care slots in rural communities, compared with 9 percent of licensed capacity in suburban areas and 14 percent of licensed capacity in urban areas.** In many states, this number is much higher, with family care providers representing the majority of the licensed child care supply in rural communities in Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, and California. (see Table 1)
Family child care homes are well-suited for rural communities, as they are smaller programs that may be closer to where families live, making them more accessible. Importantly, it is difficult to compare the supply of licensed family child care across states because some states do not require family child care providers to obtain a license, and others have a high threshold for licensure. In some states, for example, a family child care provider must become licensed once they start caring for more than one non-related child, while in other states the threshold for licensure is 12 children.
This results in some states with a very low percentage of child care slots in licensed family child care homes, even though many families use care from family child care providers who operate without a license.
5. A typical teacher in a rural child care center earns just $23,000 per year
Early childhood educators play a critical role in educating and caring for young children and supporting rural economies, yet they often earn poverty-level wages. In rural communities, the median wage for a teacher is just $11.42 per hour, or about $23,000 annually. Largely due to such low wages, rural child care providers have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers, who may be able to earn more teaching in a local school district or working in another industry.
Low wages are prevalent for early childhood educators regardless of where they live, however, with educators in metropolitan areas earning roughly the same low wages.
Public investments in child care are necessary to support children, families, and providers in rural communities
While rural communities experience unique challenges to building and maintaining their supply of quality, affordable child care, they also offer unique opportunities to serve children and families. Several policies could be bolstered or enacted to increase access to quality child care for rural families in the United States. Increasing funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, for example, would provide child care assistance to more rural families, and increase the subsidy rate so that rural child care providers could more easily meet their operating expenses and increase the quality of their programs. And passing the Child Care for Working Families Act would limit most working families’ child care payments to 7 percent of their income and make targeted investments in building the supply of licensed child care in child care deserts. Access to high-quality, affordable child care must also be central to any plan to build infrastructure in rural communities: Increasing child care supply and revitalizing child care facilities are vital to supporting not only rural communities but also the national economy.
Leila Schochet is a policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.
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