Rebecca Haider has been the Data Services and Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Small Towns (CST) for the last 2.5 years, with a focus on rural data, surveys, and quantitative analysis. We’ve recently asked her to write a blog series on a recently emerging issue for rural areas.
Through my work at CST, I’ve developed a particular interest in studying both the opportunities and challenges that families face in rural areas; recently employment, housing, and childcare have topped that list. Since I’ve been blessed with a job and apartment that I love, I’ve never had to think about the first two. But now that my husband and I are expecting our first child (!!!), the reality of the third is sinking in.
In the last year and a half, I have conducted and analyzed three surveys concerning the effects childcare has on local communities (one for Stevens County parents, one for local providers, and one for UMM staff, faculty, and students). I have seen from their results that many people have struggled and/or are struggling to find childcare that meets their needs. While the specific findings will be addressed in a future post, Kris Bevell of the Prairie Business Magazine summarized the sentiments nicely in a 2013 article:
“Sure, young people like having bars and nightclubs and funky downtowns and lots of activities. But they also have babies. And that’s what we as a region want. We need young people to stay here or move here and have families. […] If [these] employees can’t find quality care for their children, they won’t work for you. They won’t move to your community, or they’ll be forced to move away, or they might have to consider quitting their job to stay home with their children because they have no other option.”
If we want our rural areas to attract and retain young professionals, the reality is that we need to think about the types of amenities and services we offer. I know that I am going to consider the school district and the availability of childcare as much or more than I consider the employment options (especially considering the virtually unlimited self-employment opportunities these days) when we decide where we want to settle down and raise our future family. I was born and raised in a town less than half the size of Morris and loved it, so I have always wanted to raise my children in a similar environment someday.
The data say that I’m not the only one. There are established trends in young families moving into rural areas, a phenomenon dubbed the “brain gain” by Extension Research Fellow, Ben Winchester. In fact, the figure below shows that 71 of the 80 non-metro counties saw an increase in the number of child-care-aged kiddos (0-4 year-olds who would become 10-14 in the next decade), with the 25-29 year-olds (35-39, in 2010) following a very similar pattern. If no one from these age groups came to the county or left, we would expect to see 0 percent change, so this positive change means that there was definitive in-migration of these age groups. This trend is replicated for other children/parent ages and tells me that the need for childcare is not going to go away (and may even continue to grow larger in coming years).
While some of these incoming rural parents are able to stay at home, the reality is that the majority are working. While my husband and I would like to stay at home with our not-yet-newborn, we both plan to work for the next several years to pay off our student loans and save up for a house. Our kiddo will be in good company, since nearly 70 percent of Stevens County kids under the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce (or all if they only live with one parent). That’s 472 zero-to-five-year-olds in Stevens county alone whose parents are working. The surrounding counties are no different. An Echo Press article was just published last Friday, November 13th detailing the exact same situation.
“‘It’s not just a crisis for families looking for childcare, it’s a crisis for employers and the entire community.’”
Now that I’m in the middle of it, it is easy for me to see how childcare can present a “crisis for employers and the entire community.” It truly impacts so many of the facets on which CST and other community/economic developers work. Not knowing where I will be bringing my child yet, I find myself asking how I can possibly focus on contributing to my community… Will I have to move to find childcare? Will I have to change jobs? Will I have to sacrifice living in the town I love to provide for my kids? All of my future housing and employment decisions (remember, those are the other two topics that I keep hearing about at CST) will be affected by the availability and costs of childcare, a situation I think is common for many, if not all, rural parents.
For us raising our family in a small town is still worth it, but we know that we’ll need to consider all of the facts to find a way to make it work. For those of you in similar situations or who want to learn more about the climate for childcare in rural areas, I’ll be exploring more of the details on this topic in weeks to come. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your perspectives on rural Minnesota childcare, so leave a reply below or send us a message on Facebook!
Many thanks, Rebecca (and Baby) Haider