Parents living in rural communities have long struggled to access affordable, quality child care near their homes, and the current pandemic only exacerbates barriers in the rural child care system. The sheer size of rural areas often makes it difficult for families to access child care within their own communities. As a result, it is not uncommon for some parents to drive upwards of 40 miles round trip daily, for example from home to a child care provider outside of their community and then to another town for work. It is also not unusual for children from the same family to use multiple child care providers due to the lack of available slots.
Even if families in rural communities find a suitable child care option, the decision to place their children in outside care is a difficult one. Rural populations are especially vulnerable to the health risks of COVID-19 due to older age, greater health challenges, and limited access to health care services. Additionally, since rural populations often live in multi-generational homes, the pandemic places rural families at higher risk of viral transmission between younger and older members.
A crucial solution to these child care challenges is family child care, which provides a safe, recognizable place for children to be taken care of in a small group setting that meets the current health and safety guidelines during this pandemic. Family child care is often located in a residential home and is provided by a relative or qualified non-relative provider who works closely with each family they serve. Long before the pandemic, family child care has been an essential part of the rural child care supply. Such home-based providers make up one-fifth of licensed child care slots in rural America, which is disproportionately large compared to the only 9% and 14% of family care providers in suburban and urban regions. Particularly, family child care is well-suited to the realities of rural settings because small group sizes accommodate to local need. Large child care centers, in contrast, do not suit the dispersed demand of rural communities and can find it difficult to scale up.
During the Bipartisan Policy Center’s May 2020 virtual forum, state child care administrators observed that more families are turning to family child care amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including in rural states. Family child care offers characteristics parents can trust during the public health emergency, such as small group sizes, mixed-age care, reliable providers, and neighborhood locations close to where parents live.
Rural communities desperately need more child care supply in general, as well as family child care specifically, in order to sustain their local economies. The nationwide decline in home-based child care options over the recent decade suggests that rural communities are impacted the most, with fewer licensed child care options close to their home or work. The loss of child care options can be seen in specific states with significant rural populations. In Vermont, one of the most rural states, a report conducted by the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office found a tremendous decline in home-based providers, losing over 200 home-based programs and over 1,800 child care slots from 2015 to 2018. Similarly, in Utah, four of its rural counties lack any licensed family child care, and the state can serve only 5% of children from birth to 5 years old in all of Utah’s rural counties in a licensed child care setting. The pandemic emergency further heightens child care barriers for rural families, as more than 60% of providers across the nation have temporarily closed and many others have drastically limited group sizes.
In order to support rural working families through this crisis, policymakers must act to increase family child care supply in rural America. In particular, BPC recommends:
- States invest in networks of home-based child care programs in order to help providers remain open as well as encourage new programs to provide child care. Home-based child care programs, especially in rural regions, operate independently from one another and struggle to find business partners to share costs with. Models that build networks—such as shared services networks, staffed family child care networks, and Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships—can support quality-building, business practices, and consolidate supply chains for individual family child care programs.
- States should adopt alternative methodologies, apart from traditional market rate surveys, to set subsidies under the Child Care Development Fund in order to close the subsidy differential between family child care and center-based care. Current methods offer an average reimbursement rate of about $8,000 for infants in family child care, compared to $10,800 for infants in child care centers. Alternative methods, such as a cost estimation model used by the District of Columbia, can better capture the cost of providing family child care services and set subsidy rates accordingly. Market rate surveys fail to capture unlicensed child care settings in their calculations, which leaves out a significant portion of the rural child care supply. Market rates also are not sensitive to how providers are restricted to charge only what families can afford and how this is often offset by mixed-age care and low staff wages.
- Rural states should partner with businesses, including chambers of commerce, to support employers in helping their employees locate and access family child care. For example, Kentucky state policymakers have partnered with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to set up a family child care home network, which small businesses refer to in order to help their employees find child care.
- States should use grants or contracts when paying child care subsidies to family child care programs to increase their stability. Grants should also be provided to stabilize family child care programs during COVID-19, which can be used to purchase cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment, and retrofit family child care facilities to ensure health and safety.
By investing in family child care, rural states will benefit two-fold from increased child care supply and improved access to home-based child care, which meets the unique needs of rural families. States with prominent rural communities must act now to support these vital home-based child care providers, who remain essential to the rural workforce and help safeguard the health of rural communities.