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Child Care Gaps in Rural America Threaten to Undercut Small Communities

By Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez

Candy Murnion remembers vividly the event that pushed her to open her first day care business in Jordan, a town of fewer than 400 residents in a sea of grassland in eastern Montana.

Garfield County's public health nurse, one of few public health officials serving the town and nearly 5,000 square miles that surround it, had quit because she had given birth to her second child and couldn’t find day care.

“My primary goal was to give families a safe place to take their children so they could work if they needed to,” said Murnion, 63. She started in 2015 with eight slots, the maximum she could cover herself, and slowly grew. Then, during the covid-19 pandemic, a surge in federal aid to child care programs helped her raise wages for her workers and expand to a second facility.

Today, her day care programs, the only ones in Jordan, can serve up to 30 children, ranging from 6 weeks old to school age. But after that pandemic-era funding support ended in September, Murnion began to wonder how long she could sustain her expanded capacity, or whether she’d need to raise prices or lower enrollment.

And she isn’t alone. Data collected prior to the pandemic shows that more than half of Americans lived in neighborhoods classified as child care deserts, areas that have no child care providers or where there are more than three children in the community for every available licensed care slot. Other research shows parents and child care providers in rural areas face unique barriers. Access to quality child care programs and early education is linked to better educational and behavioral outcomes for kids and can also help link families and children to immuni...