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Report: Lack of child care in Wyoming threatens viability of rural communities

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Eric Galatas

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(Wyoming News Service) Child care is an essential component of strong communities throughout the U.S. - but finding a provider is significantly more difficult in rural areas including much of Wyoming, according to a new report

Co-author Linda Smith, the director Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said there are more than three kids who need child care for every available slot. 

And that lack of access is taking a toll on working families.

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"Parents are making do," said Smith. "Sometimes one works days, one works nights, they use relatives. The gap is pretty significant, and it's higher in rural parts of the country than it is in our cities."

Eighty-six percent of rural parents cited lack of child care as the main reason they or their partner were not able to work. 

There are currently vacant rooms in child care facilities with plenty of space to add more children, but Smith said that capacity is going unused largely due to the low wages that most operations - which tend to be small businesses - can afford to pay. 

Pay for childcare workers ranks among the lowest in the nation.

The cost of child care has also risen beyond the reach of many parents, sometimes topping in-state college tuition. 

Smith said she believes federal investments like those that helped bridge the child care gap during the pandemic will be necessary to make the business model work. 

But she said how those investments are deployed should not be decided in Washington D.C.

"There's a big difference between Casper and a smaller town out in the western part of the state," said Smith. "And only people who live in those communities really know those things."

When parents can't find care, kids and entire rural communities can pay a significant price. Children need consistency in order to fully develop into healthy adolescents and adults. 

But Smith said without reliable, quality child care, kids tend to get bounced around between family and friends - and are less likely to be prepared when they reach school age.

"It impacts children, and the quality of care they get matters," said Smith. "It impacts parents, and especially parents going to work. Child care benefits businesses. Businesses need workers, and workers need child care."