Guest Column: Finding child care in outstate Minnesota

Published 7:21 pm Tuesday, June 4, 2024

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By Sue Loch and Noelle Viktora

Finding child care in outstate Minnesota

Where will I find child care? That is one of the first worries that goes through an expectant mom’s head when she discovers she is having a baby. Typically, she will start calling to get her name on a list for child care within the first few weeks of finding out the exciting news. We hear from staff at The Children’s Center that they get that call often, even before those expecting tell their families. That is a good indicator of how few slots there are available in our area and how worrisome it can be for families.

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Here in southern Minnesota, we are blessed with a quality of life that offers us many amenities of life in a larger community, but with the benefits of green space, lakes and opportunities to experience nature by walking out our front door. We also have challenges with child care, housing and transportation. We know that our community is interested in helping to solve these problems. For those of us involved in child care, this is critical.
According to Marnie Werner in “A Quiet Crisis, a Report on Childcare,” in 80% of Minnesota families, both parents work. Child care issues are the primary cause of absenteeism among American workers. Child care is the infrastructure that keeps America working. That infrastructure in Freeborn County is slowly fading away.

Licensed child care comes in two forms: center-based child care and family, or in-home, child care. Family child care is far more prevalent in areas like Freeborn County and is an essential option for parents to choose from. Typically, in-home child cares are smaller, offering care up to 10 children, while child care centers are larger with a much larger staff. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

In 2021 in Freeborn County, there were 1,433 children under the age of 5. At that time, there were 938 slots for child care. Since 2000, in-home child care licenses have declined by 50%. Since in-home providers are the backbone of care in Greater Minnesota, that is extremely concerning. In Freeborn County, we have lost more than 15 in-home providers. That equates to 150 slots lost.

Thankfully, our leaders in Freeborn County have a program specifically for helping people interested in getting into the business of in-home child care. Interested parties can apply at ALEDA for a forgivable loan up to $2,000 to help them get their business started. As you can imagine, child care is a highly regulated business, and this fund will help purchase needed items to bring their home up to licensed standards and also purchase needed toys and equipment for operating an in-home child care.

We can talk about how child care is a market failure, and how parents cannot bear the cost of supporting child care. Can you imagine if our school system had ratios like child care does and parents had to support the teacher’s salaries without any funding from the state? That is exactly how a child care business is expected to operate, and I can tell you the margins are razor-thin. Both of our child care centers in Albert Lea operated in the red for the last few years. Even though both were well-run, have knowledgeable staff and are essentially full, the model just doesn’t work.

As members of the board of The Children’s Center, we are in the midst of planning a sustainability campaign. This will be a community effort aimed at supporting our center and ensuring care will be available for the many families that depend on that care.

It is exciting and gives us hope that we may work together to find solutions in our community to safeguard our child care and in so doing, assure our businesses can recruit, grow and continue to offer their employees the peace of mind that their children are well cared for. Sustaining and growing our workforce depends on it.
(Information from “Child care in rural Minnesota after 2020,” Center for Rural Policy and Development,

Sue Loch and Noelle Viktora are members of the Chamber Business Education Committee and on the Albert Lea Children’s Center board.