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Opinion: Rural Missouri Needs Investment to Solve Child Care Crisis

I grew up in rural Missouri and am proud to still live in my hometown of Kirksville. It is where I am choosing to raise my four children, and instill the values of family, community, and hard work. It saddens me that that choice is dwindling for many Missourians in our rural areas. Due to economic conditions which are only exasperated by the lack of childcare, remaining in rural Missouri becomes more and more difficult for many families.

For those who are blessed with family-supporting jobs, finding available and affordable child care for young children can be, far too often, impossible. Especially for those needing infant care. In fact, according to Child Care Aware® of Missouri, much of rural Missouri is in a child care crisis. The organization’s research revealed that 73 total counties in Missouri, including 70 of Missouri’s rural counties, are child care deserts. A child care desert is defined as a county that contains no child care provider and has more than 50 children under age 5 or a county with so few child care options that there are three times as many children as licensed child care slots.

That’s right, of Missouri’s child care deserts, 96 percent of them are in rural communities and more than 70 percent of Missouri’s rural counties are considered child care deserts. This is, without question, a crisis for rural Missouri that must be addressed before it’s too late.

But the impacts of this crisis reach far beyond our rural families. According to a recent Missouri Chamber of Commerce analysis, our state loses an estimated $1.35 billion annually due to child care issues. In addition to families and children, businesses feel the impact of this crisis every day. When parents cannot work, employers feel the pinch of our workforce crisis as unexpected absences and high-levels of turnover prove costly. Each year, absences, and employee turnover alone cost Missouri employers more than $1 billion. This also does not take into account those who want to work, but cannot due to a lack of childcare; many of them being women.

I believe looking at the data is critical to addressing the problem. The data is clear: child care is a smart investment for taxpayers. High-quality early childhood programs can deliver a 13% return on investment annually to taxpayers. And these are long-term investments—there is not a quick fix for childcare—but a sustained effort to invest over the long haul.

Through my work in economic development, I have heard the stories first hand from citizens in my own community. A mom wants to work and help provide for her family, but cannot find care, or care that she can afford. Another woman wants to have more kids, but is afraid that she won’t be able to afford or find child care, and is considering limiting the number of children she has. Others have wanted to open child care businesses, but when looking at the business side of barely breaking even by opening a center, they pull back and do not open.

Rural Missouri needs the Missouri legislature to act now to address this crisis and make a smart investment in children. Together, an investment in children will have incredible returns for our communities, families, children and businesses.