Citing the lack of affordable access to child care in rural communities, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has sponsored a bill that seeks to address those challenges via the pending federal farm bill now being considered in Congress.
Named the Expanding Childcare in Rural America Act, the bill would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development agency to prioritize programs that improve “the availability, quality and cost of child care in agricultural and rural communities” through a variety of programs, including direct loans, loan guarantees and grants to develop or improve essential public services and facilities across rural areas. The bill would apply to funding from 2024 through 2028.
Nationwide, 74 percent of farm families have experienced child care challenges over the past five years, though the issue isn’t necessarily unique to any single demographic.
“This is not a ‘they’ or ‘them’ problem, like farmworkers versus farmers, or even rural versus urban. This is a ‘we’ problem for all Americans.” — Florence Becot, Rural Sociologist and Associate Research Scientist, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute’s National Farm Medicine Center
“This is not a ‘they’ or ‘them’ problem, like farmworkers versus farmers, or even rural versus urban,” rural sociologist Florence Becot, associate research scientist in Marshfield Clinic Research Institute’s National Farm Medicine Center, told Ambrook Research. “This is a ‘we’ problem for all Americans.”
Senate Bill 1867 aims to tackle the issue by allowing the USDA to provide financial awards through intermediaries such as “child care resource and referral organizations, staffed family child care networks and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) with demonstrated expertise in the child care sector.” The bill also includes grants to organizations to provide technical assistance and training related to economic development, as well as financial assistance for startup businesses in rural areas.
“Farm communities often lack enough transportation infrastructure and don’t have enough high-quality child care providers, and rural parents are more likely to work non-traditional hours,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a co-sponsor of the bill and a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Brown added that the proposed legislation comprised “commonsense, bipartisan steps to make child care more affordable and accessible in rural communities.”
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, another co-sponsor of the bill, called access to child care “a top priority for both families and employers in every corner of Kansas.”
‘With a few changes to the USDA’s Rural Development programs, which benefit our rural communities, we can build the necessary child care infrastructure that puts our children on the right educational path and provides them with a strong foundation for the future,” Sen. Marshall said in a statement.
The proposed legislation has drawn broad support outside the U.S. Capitol.
“Rural communities face unique challenges in increasing access to quality child care for families,” she said. “Not only does limited access to care have long-term impacts on child development, but it also has an immediate impact on economic loss in rural communities. The Expanding Childcare in Rural America Act of 2023 establishes a pathway for rural communities to access capital, increase access to care and connect families to critical child care resources.”
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said the organization “strongly supports” the legislation. “By investing in this bill, we can improve the lives of farm families and their communities and make a lasting impact on rural America,” he said.
Roy Chrobocinski, managing director of domestic federal policy at Save the Children, also lauded the proposal, which he said “would prioritize high-quality child care in rural communities for USDA Rural Development funding.”
The proposed legislation is critical to opening funding streams for communities that identify child care as “a barrier to attracting and retaining a robust and qualified workforce,” said Sage Schaftel, acting executive director of the Early Care and Education Consortium (ECEC), which endorsed the bill.
Another co-sponsor, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, said she’s heard from constituents who drive 50 miles to take their kids to child care, and from providers struggling to find and retain qualified workers. “This bill will help improve the quality, availability and affordability of child care in rural communities to help ensure that parents have the ability to pursue their careers,” she added.
Likewise, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she’s heard from employees and small-business owners who want more child care options in rural areas. “Our efforts will empower child care centers in our agriculture communities to invest in facility development and staff training opportunities to ensure quality child care options are available to every family,” she said.
Bruno J. Navarro is a writer, editor and photographer who has covered business, technology, courts and education. His work has appeared in CNBC, Women's Wear Daily, NBC News, The Associated Press, Nylon and The Arizona Republic. Originally from Queens, New York, he currently lives in New Jersey.