In Minnesota, about 186,000 children under 6 live outside the Twin Cities, where families pay about 75 percent of the going rate in the metropolitan area — $132 weekly for in-home infant care, compared to $175 per week in the metro area, according to Child Care Aware Minnesota. Workers in southwest Minnesota, however, earn only 61 percent of what the average worker in the Twin Cities earns — $661 weekly compared to $1,087 per week in the Cities.
“Parents can’t pay out of pocket any more than they are, providers can’t afford to charge any less than they are,” McCully said.
A delicate balance
Because of tight margins and relatively stagnant wage growth, choosing child care in rural Minnesota can become a difficult balance between the desire for quality care and financial or geographical realities.
The problem of overcrowded and unregulated day cares was brought to light by the Star Tribune’s 2012 reporting on unsafe — and sometimes deadly — day cares.
The regulations are stricter now and better enforced, but quality still varies, and the good day cares fill up fast. Providers are incentivized not to take on infants, who are the most costly to care for and tightly regulated, said Mary Franson, a legislator from Alexandria who used to run an in-home day care.
She said most child-care providers do an excellent job, but the already tough business of caring for babies has only become more difficult thanks to increased training requirements, and variation in how counties interpret rules on holding sleeping babies or staying within earshot of them.
“Rising costs stem right back to rules and regulations the state imposes on child-care providers,” Franson said. “But yet child-care providers can’t raise costs, because wages aren’t rising.”
Even for parents who can afford day care and find a spot for their child, the uneven quality of what’s available can cause paralyzing worry at work.
Jessica Olesch, who lives near Marshall, returned to her job as a bank credit analyst in March after having a baby boy. She called 40 child-care providers that were full or didn’t call back. Finally, a local child-care business was able to get a two-month variance from the state to add an extra spot for her son.
When that variance expired, Olesch had to start over. The next day care she found for the 4-month-old boy made her feel uneasy, but she had no choice.
“It was completely terrifying to have your baby away from you and with someone you didn’t fully trust,” Olesch said. “But we were in a terrible spot. We needed to work and that was the only day care with an infant opening.”
She pulled him out this summer and platooned child-care duties with baby sitters, her husband and her father — all of them burning vacation time until they found a new spot earlier this month.
The benefits of child care
Quality day care doesn’t just help parents work, advocates say — it helps prepare children for school.
Kids who show up at kindergarten ready to learn require less remedial work and in the long run tend to earn more money, pay more taxes, and commit less crime, said Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who’s been researching the economic development implications of early childhood care and education for years.
When child care is lacking, the spark that early education provides is even less available to poor children, said Heidi Hagel Braid, the Minnesota director for First Children’s Finance.
“When it’s not available to families who can’t afford it, that’s an even bigger problem,” Hagel Braid said. “If you are a poor kid in greater Minnesota, that means you have even fewer options available, and you’re at the most risk of not being ready for kindergarten.”