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'There's no way I can afford that': Idaho's lack of rural child care impacts families and economy

A woman sits in front of three wooden tables with seven younger children in front of her, eating lunch.
Emilie Ritter Saunders
Boise State Public Radio
Idaho preschool teacher Mary Allen listens to one of her students during their afternoon snack time. The state doesn't have public preschool, so programs are paid for through a hodgepodge of funding sources.

Lincoln County in south central Idaho has a population of about 45,000 people, where children under the age of five make up about 6% of the population. Nationally, Idaho ranks in the top 10 of having a large population of children.

Chelby Pinkard grew up in Lincoln County and still lives there. She and her husband have two kids in the small town of Shoshone.

"Lincoln County is a small community," said Pinkard. "It's a lot of farms, a lot of you know, but there isn't any like big things, like big stores. It's small town living, pretty much."

Lincoln County is made up of three main towns: Richfield, Shoshone and Dietrich. Agriculture is highly depended on in this county.

Rural areas have long struggled to provide enough child care for their residents. Research organization Child Trends says there are more child care providers in cities than in rural areas. The county office in Lincoln County says there is one day care for every 2,400 Idaho residents.

Three years ago, Karma Fitzgerald, the chairperson of the Lincoln County Youth Commission, saw a problem: families needed help with child care.

When the pandemic started, the commission decided to open a youth center providing child care. It opened a year later with a mission to prepare children for kindergarten and grade school.

The center received a $225,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2022 as part of an Idaho Commerce-run initiative to develop infrastructure. The timing worked out perfectly for Chelby Pinkard who was looking for child care and had few options.

"But there's no care here for child care. And they do have a preschool, kind of like what the youth center does, but they're really expensive," said Pinkard. "They want like over $1,000 every three months. There's no way I can afford that."

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported child care rates in Idaho ranged from $300 to $800 a month in 2018. The youth center provided affordable child care compared to other preschools, allowing Pinkard to work and know her children were taken care of.

"He loves to learn over there. The way that they do the crafts. He's a big talker, so when he comes home from the youth center, he's going to tell us all about it."

The child care problem isn't new. Pinkard remembers what it was like babysitting when she was growing up in the 2000s.

"I know that when I was in school or during the summers and everything like that, I always watched kids."

An additional hurdle for child care is the provider pay. The average salary ranges from $30,000 to $40,000, well below the state average of $47,000. Low wages are a disincentive and COVID-19 made this worse. Fitzgerald said finding workers when the center opened was a struggle.

"When you're starting with nothing and working with very little, more than that, it's hard to pay a competitive wage when people can drive to another community and potentially make quite a bit more."

Since the pandemic, research and advocacy group Child Care Aware of America noted over 100,000 people have left child care positions nationwide, with some child care providers unable to stay open. But less child care doesn't mean less demand; working parents will always be in need.

"Child care is always seen as a family issue, but it's not. It's a community issue," said Fitzgerald.

A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation showed Idaho loses approximately $479 million annually due to child care issues. This is a loss for employers as well as state tax revenues.

"In Idaho, businesses lose half a billion dollars a year to child care problems and when you can work on a solution to child care issues in a collaborative way, that includes not only the families that need it but the schools, the churches, the businesses and the local municipalities."

Fitzgerald says child care solutions will need to come from collaboration.

"All of us benefit from having adequate child care for the children in our community. Our children deserve to have a place where they are safe, where they can get inspiring educational opportunities."

Back in Lincoln County, Pinkard says the youth center has done an amazing job for after school activities and her life has gotten better because of it. But, there is still a long way to go.

Earlier this year, Idaho's legislature budget committee voted against distributing federal funds to day cares. After child care providers and parents protested at the Capitol in March, that vote was reversed.

The grants will last until the end of Idaho's fiscal year on June 30.

Hi! I am Keneilwe Patience Mabidikama, a senior at The College of Idaho. I am an international student from South Africa. I am an International Political Economy major. A few things that I enjoy are listening to music, reading and playing volleyball. An interest of mine (besides journalism) is self-care.