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Understanding the Challenges of a Rural Economy

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 impacted the United States from coast to coast, and rural America was hit harder and has suffered longer. The post-recession recovery looks very different in rural areas than it does in urban areas, with employment challenges continuing to pose a real threat for rural America.

There are competing definitions of what constitutes a rural community. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers all of Dodge and Jefferson counties to be rural.

The data bears out these challenges and last year, the Aspen Institute convened the Rural Development Innovation Group for a panel discussion focused on the rural job challenges. The group includes rural and community development practitioners and others involved in advancing rural economic growth.  The panel discussion focused on the employment barriers faced by employers and rural residents, and highlighted best practice solutions from several communities.

One of the most pressing issues facing rural workers (and urban workers as well) is child care. Access to high quality and affordable child care is an issue experts are calling the “quiet crisis.”  Lack of child care services, and prohibitively priced care options, negatively impact employment options.

Research conducted by the Rural Development Innovation Group notes that half of families below the poverty level pay more than 10% of their income on child care. For some, the cost of child care pushes the family into poverty.  It’s important to note that this data is for those families that are paying for child care. The research doesn’t count those who simply cannot work because child care costs are so prohibitive.

This ‘quiet crisis’ is affecting rural economies across America. Prohibitive child care costs are impacting the ability for parents to work, or to pursue educational or training opportunities to improve their standard of living. The crisis is adversely impacting rural employers as well. We regularly hear from area employers about their inability to find workers to fill open positions. If you’ve driven around Dodge and Jefferson counties, you’ve likely seen plenty of Help Wanted signs. There are roughly 102,000 jobs and approximately 36,000 resumes posted on the State Workforce Development site on any given day. The data clearly shows a 20-year steady decline in the labor force participation rates. While there are many factors contributing to this decline, one of the factors is parental decisions to opt out of the labor force because they cannot access affordable child care.

Access to high-quality affordable child care is a complex and important issues affecting rural economies.  Solving it won’t magically fix our declining worker participation rates, but it will make a difference. The Glacial Heritage Development Partnership will continue to work with service organizations and policy makers on this issue and others that are negatively impacting economic growth in Dodge and Jefferson counties.  Working together, we can make a difference.

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