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Child care demand outpaces supply. In rural U.S., there may be no supply

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The struggle to find affordable or just available child care is real for parents across the country, and it's worse in rural areas. Parents are often left cobbling a plan together because there may be no day care available for miles, and in some cases, there's just no day care at all. Xcaret Nunez of Harvest Public Media has more.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I see Mommy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, I see Mommy, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mommy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my gosh.

XCARET NUNEZ, BYLINE: It's pick-up time for the kids at the Stilwell Schools Day Care in Stilwell, Okla.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You wanna say bye-bye?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Bye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bye-bye.

NUNEZ: All the children here have parents who work for the small-town school. The school district opened the day care in late 2019 in an effort to try and recruit new teachers.

MATTHEW BRUNK: We have people that would love to work at Stillwell, but they've told us that they can't take the job because we don't have day care.

NUNEZ: That's assistant superintendent Matthew Brunk, who helped start the district's day care. Brunk proposed the idea after he and his wife moved to Stillwell and had a difficult time finding any child care in town for their 2-year-old.

BRUNK: So, I mean, talk about panic. We had no idea what we were going to do.

NUNEZ: Day care can be difficult to find across the country, but it's especially hard in rural communities. A study by the Center for American Progress calls rural areas child care deserts and says nearly 60% of rural families don't have any access to child care. Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist at Ohio State University, says that puts a financial strain on families.

SHOSHANAH INWOOD: When families don't have access to child care, somebody needs to leave the workforce or to stay home and take care of the children, so that's sacrificing additional household income.

NUNEZ: And that was exactly the case for Ashley Fajkowski. She has three kids, two of them are twins. And this day, they're playing and blowing kisses.

ASHLEY FAJKOWSKI: I'm going to get your belly, belly, belly, belly, belly, belly, belly, belly, belly.

NUNEZ: Fajkowski lives on the outskirts of Rolla, Mo., a hundred miles southwest of St. Louis. And she says the physical distance between any day care and her family is a major issue. The only child care options she would be comfortable with are at least an hour away.

FAJKOWSKI: We were really surprised, having moved from St. Louis, that there was no child care unless you went through a church.

NUNEZ: Fajkowski stayed home and planned to re-enter the workforce in 2020 when her first child was in kindergarten. But then she learned she was pregnant with twins.

FAJKOWSKI: The decision kind of made itself, but I really struggled with it a lot, especially at first. I was, like, so ready to return to work.

NUNEZ: Fajkowski and her husband are now hoping to move out of their small town to be closer to family and child care so she can go back to work. The child care drought in rural areas, just like in urban ones, is partially due to child care workers pay, typically less than $12 an hour. Maureen Coffey, an early childhood policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, says in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress helped by approving the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan. She says they allocated more than $40 billion to fight the child care drought.

MAUREEN COFFEY: When it comes to how that's impacted rural communities, over 30,000 programs in rural counties have gotten ARP funding, and these funds reached at least one provider in almost 97% of rural counties.

NUNEZ: Back in Stilwell, Okla., Matthew Brunk says it was that federal money that allowed the district to open a new day care this month. That meant fewer families on the waitlist and less of a shortage of child care options in this rural town. But it's a relief that may be fleeting, since much of the federal funds for day care in the coronavirus bill expires next year. For NPR News, I'm Xcaret Nunez in Stilwell, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Xcaret Nuñez