Perspectives on Rural Child Care. ERIC Digest.
by Beach, Betty A.
Although nearly 25 percent of U.S. children grow up in non-metropolitan
areas, we have done little research on them. This oversight extends to
rural child care, which receives little explicit analysis. As a result,
"Our research on child care is an essentially urban literature, with a
few examples of suburban studies. Rural child care is an unknown quantity"
(Phillips, 1987, p. 123).
The few existing studies of rural children produce a portrait that sometimes
contradicts popular assumptions. Predominantly rural states frequently
report higher percentages of working parents than do urban states (Children's
Defense Fund, 1996, p. 93). But rural children experience poverty at rates
equal to urban children, while rural mother-only families are even likelier
to be poor than urban ones ("Non-metro and metro children," 1992, p. 27).
The link between rural residence and economic disadvantage is particularly
pronounced for minority families (Jensen & Tienda, 1989). With these
statistics as a backdrop, this Digest reviews what we know about the nature
of rural child care and suggests implications for practitioners and policymakers.
REALITIES OF RURAL CHILD CARE
Center-based care. Rural families experience child care differently
from urban ones on a number of counts. Center-based care, increasingly
popular among American families, is less available to rural children. In
many areas, lengthy distances, small and scattered populations and high
transportation costs make centers impractical. Further, rural parents are
more likely to prefer informal care--especially care provided by relatives
(Shoffner, 1986). Consequently, only about one fourth of rural children
are in group care ("Nonmetro and metro children," 1992, p. 27). Additionally,
the centers that do exist in rural areas are often subsidized, and thus
targeted at special populations, leaving working-poor and middle-class
families with fewer choices.
Some surveys suggest that the small number of extant rural centers are
of lesser quality than urban ones. A major study that sampled child care
programs nationwide found that rural teachers have fewer years of schooling
than urban teachers and are paid less, wages being an "important predictor
of quality care" (Kisker, Hofferth, Phillips, & Farquhar, 1991, p.
110). Rural centers charge lower fees and generally "fees and quality indicators
vary together; the higher the quality, the higher the average fees" (Kisker
et al., p. 202). Compared with urban states, rural states provide less
oversight and regulation of child care, suggesting that quality may indeed
be compromised. Thus it is possible that rural children lack the educational
opportunities afforded in centers and are increasingly disadvantaged compared
to their urban and suburban counterparts (Sherman, 1992).
Family-based care. Nearly 75 percent of rural children are not in formal,
center-based care; rather, they are found in a variety of informal arrangements
such as that provided by friends, relatives, and other siblings. For example,
Stegelin (1990) found that rural Kentucky families used informal child
care resources at rates nearly double that of urban families. Another study
comparing rural and urban Iowa families reinforced this pattern, showing
that rural families were far more likely to utilize relative care and far
less likely to place their children in group care (Atkinson, 1994). Recent
census data corroborate that rural children lag behind metropolitan ones
in utilizing formal group care and non-relative care in the home (such
as nannies or housekeepers) and are indeed found more frequently in out-of-home
informal care (Casper, 1995).
Echoing these reports at the school-age level, a Nebraska study of before-
and after-school care discovered that only about 5 percent of children
were in center-based care. Further, one fifth of children received care
from three or more sources per week, a finding consistent with Squibb's
(1992) observation that rural families employ multiple arrangements.
Regulation of family child care in rural states is often less stringent
or lacking altogether; unregulated care is of unknown quality. Regulated
family child care providers in rural areas are less educated, less likely
to have specialized training, more likely to have higher child-staff ratios,
and charge much lower fees (Kisker et al., 1991). Just as with center-based
care, rural children's experiences in informal care call for greater examination.
Compared with urban care, is rural care inferior or simply different?
Potential strengths of rural child care. Readers should realize that
these observations are rooted in a very sparse research literature. Studies
focused on metropolitan children may neglect potential strengths unique
to rural settings, special qualities that may counterbalance apparent deficiencies
and that need to be better understood.
For example, anecdotal reports from rural providers stress the community
connectedness and support rural child care engenders for children through
"informal, personal, collaborative relationships" (King, 1995, p. 13).
The personal knowledge and community connections so familiar to rural residents
may provide young children with important funds of social capital unavailable
to urban children. Consequently, child care programs may benefit from community
support in intangible ways not measured through surveys. One study of a
Southern rural African-American community found very positive engagement
with its Head Start program grounded in their "collective orientation"
and "cultural congruence," a community support not afforded to the more
distant public school system (Philipsen & Agnew, 1995).
Furthermore, community connections may also create a more stable child
care system in rural settings. Inconsistency and turnover are disquieting
negative factors in child care quality (Hayes, Palmer, & Zaslow, 1990).
Exploratory research with rural providers in Maine found surprising stability
in care, a stability rooted in personal knowledge: The community gossip
network allows parents to "shop around" beforehand, to discuss with others
the merits of the provider so that the family actually selects and commits
to the provider in advance, "plugging in deliberately" (Beach, 1995a).
In rural Iowa, Atkinson (1994) found a similar stability grounded in personal
relationships, with caregivers volunteering their services to a parent
in need and providing care for longer periods of time. These, and other,
potential strengths of rural child care may attract closer scrutiny as
researchers move to a more ecological focus on how families and child care
settings interact rather than concentrating solely on factors of the program
in isolation. (Hayes, et al.).
CHALLENGES TO RURAL PRACTITIONERS
Rural child care practitioners face challenges sometimes unfamiliar
to their urban colleagues, such as basic logistical concerns: dependable
transportation, reliable snow removal, and telephone calls to parents'
workplaces that are toll calls (Beach, 1995a). Geographic isolation, limited
resources for assistance or training, low fees due to underemployment and
seasonal unemployment of working families, and meeting the costs of child
care regulation rooted in urban models are all common concerns of providers
(Bailey & Warford, 1995).
Similarly, rural providers may face unique frustrations and negative
circumstances. Providers in an exploratory study mentioned the gossip network
as the downside of community connections: "[You annoy one person] and it
all reverberates." Many rural parents still perceive child care as "babysitting"
and are not yet accustomed to professional identities and practices. Rural
families ask relatively few questions about curriculum, nutrition, or training
and are more likely to inquire about safety, child happiness, and fees.
The resources readily available to metropolitan providers--libraries, material
and equipment suppliers, training opportunities, the support of specialists
and professional associations--require significant effort by rural providers
who must travel great distances for similar opportunities (Beach, 1995a).
Without more systematic study of challenges facing the rural provider,
pronouncements as to the quality and direction of rural child care can
only be tentative (Beach, 1995b).
IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICYMAKERS
Rethinking regulation. Many rural providers feel that child care legislation
has an inherent urban bias. Funding formulas for federal programs, with
their reliance on population size and density, often favor urban over rural
areas. The smaller scale of rural programs and relative lack of individuals
with highly specialized credentials make writing and competing for grants
quite difficult. "Stringent professional qualification requirements that
accompany state or federal funding can actually harm programs in small
towns and rural areas" where fewer credentialed people live. Excessive
demands for paperwork and inflexible eligibility guidelines may subvert
the program since "income verification procedures and confidentiality issues
become especially sensitive in locales where people know generations of
each other's families and attend church and school functions together"
(King, 1995, p. 13). Policymakers need to realize that demands and controls
reasonable in metropolitan areas may be counterproductive in rural settings.
Developing new rural approaches. In designing and delivering services,
alternatives to the more-familiar centralized model may be needed. For
example, home-based visiting options may better match rural communities'
needs; Head Start, for example, often employs such programs with rural
families (Roberts & Wasik, 1994, p. 313). Examples of other program
models serving rural populations are described by Sherman (1992, pp. 100-103).
Delivery of training via telecommunications (Bailey & Warford, 1995)
and resource and referral networks with 800-numbers may be useful components
of a rural system. Similarly, incorporating opportunity for program flexibility
may be a good idea because "...innovation is sometimes easier in rural
areas. Despite a lack of funds, resources, and professional staff in rural
areas, new ideas are easier to initiate and meet with less resistance,
perhaps because there are fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through" (Harris-Usner,
1995). Rural America's population is increasing once again (Johnson &
Beale, 1995), as is the need of its children for quality child care. Any
of these issues noted would constitute an excellent starting point for
creating programs responsive to that need.
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