IA Engagement: There Was Nothing They Could’ve Done and Nowhere They Could’ve Gone: An Examination of Cyclical Poverty in America’s Childcare Deserts

Erin Picken, Design Editor

For my senior year Global Politics Internal Assessment, I have chosen to research the ways in which lack of access to childcare contributes to the poverty cycle in rural America. Having grown up in a childcare desert, defined as an area where demand for space in licensed child-care programs far outpaces local capacity, I believe that the lack of accessible childcare in rural places such as my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon, is one of many factors in the continuation of the poverty cycle in these areas. 

When my family first moved to Pendleton in 2007, both of my parents were employed and my brother and I were one and two years old. Soon after the move, my parents discovered that full-time childcare for children under three years old was essentially nonexistent in Umatilla county. Luckily, my parents were able to connect with four other families who had children of similar ages who were in the same position as they were and a nanny with experience and training to hire jointly. This makeshift co-op, eventually nicknamed “nannyshare”, was hosted in my family home’s basement for five years. In those five years, my mother, Kathryn Brown, was driven to make this type of childcare available to the wider community and joined the board of directors for a pre-existing non-profit organization focused on early childhood care and education in 2009. Soon thereafter, the organization had to disband due to the devastating effects of the Great Recession. Access to grants and government funding was extremely limited, especially due to the fact that childcare for toddlers and infants is much more expensive per child than care for older children, as staffing requirements for toddlers and infants is more demanding.

There is ample evidence that lack of access to childcare not only affects individuals and their close family members, but opportunities for development, access to human rights and susceptibility to violence throughout entire communities. 

Generally, the cost of living is significantly lower in rural America than it is in urban areas. Although this makes rural living more accessible and stable for growing families, rates of poverty are significantly higher in rural areas than urban ones. Childcare deserts can trap these families in situations they cannot afford upon the realization that because of the lack of childcare, they will have just one stable income instead of two. This income, in many cases, is supportive to an extent due to the low cost of living, but remains restrictive. Because of this, families do not have the financial means to move to a city where one parent could hold a more lucrative job while the other takes care of the domestic labor, or where childcare is available and both parents may have the opportunity to find employment. When this is the case, families have no choice but to stay in their rural area, limiting their children’s access to sufficient lower education and/or any higher education. Eventually, said children, who were already at a disadvantage, find themselves in low-paying jobs. This issue has a cyclical nature. 

Beyond this, there is the issue of rural-urban migration, or what one might colloquially refer to as domestic “brain drain”. This is a phenomena in which educated people move from less opportune geographical locations to more opportune ones. Aforementioned economic factors prevent small town hospitals and educational institutions from being financially competitive with institutions in more economically robust areas. This is another cyclical issue—if rural medical and academic institutions are devoid of qualified instructors, they will collapse in on themselves and thereby further limit the opportunities local young people have to pull themselves out of the circumstances they were born into. This prevents significant development from occurring within these communities, as there is not much  academic or financial incentive for people who might contribute to it long-term to stay. 

As prescribed by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all humans have “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” This article is a positive human right—a right in which a greater entity must interfere with a natural order in order to grant it—in this case, said entity would be the United States Government. This right, at present, is not being granted to the citizens of the United States equally, as many rural American parents must sacrifice job opportunities or entire careers in order to tend to their children on a full-time basis. 

While my investigation aims to consider the impacts of this issue on entire family units and communities rather than individuals within them, the effects of cyclical poverty and lack of access to childcare on misogyny in rural America is undeniable. More often than not, mothers are the primary caretakers of their children, no matter what the employment situation of the parents is. A situation in which an unemployed mother performs all of the domestic duties while an employed father works 40 hour weeks in order to pay rent breeds resentment in both directions. Studies show that a low level of involvement in childcare has an extremely apparent correlation with a low level of emotional commitment to children and a high level of domestic abuse and neglect. This is, once again, a cyclical issue, as victims of childhood domestic abuse are far more likely to become perpetrators than children who never experienced violence in the home. 

I had the opportunity to speak to the Kelly Poe, the Director of Early Learning at the Malheur Education Service District in Vale, Oregon, about her thoughts on the issue. One recurring topic in our discussion was financial segregation. She told me “the real issue in early care and education is that we have come into a habit of segregating children by income.” This occurs due to the differing programs children are placed in within the same buildings—“head start or preschool promise classrooms are sometimes in the same hallway as private pay preschool classrooms”. This is conducive to the widening of pre-existing social delineations between socioeconomic classes in rural areas. Poe stressed to me, though, that in most cases this does not occur due to malice but rather legal and special limitations. Poe believes that a large piece of the puzzle is local and federal subsidization of childcare and the proper allocation of those funds. 

In Pendleton specifically, things are looking up. In 2019, my mom recognized that the issue still persisted within the community and realized that she was in a better place to help remedy it than she had been in 2007. She and a new board of directors developed a non-profit called the Pendleton Children’s Center and were fortunate enough to receive funding from the Oregon Community Foundation, the Ford Family Foundation and many other local individuals, clubs and foundations. The former Pendleton senior center building was donated to the Center, and renovation started soon thereafter. The Pendleton Children’s Center opened its first two classrooms this month and aims to expand and provide 150 quality childcare slots to Pendleton residents 

If childcare became more widely available, rural employment rates would increase, both due to the jobs that would become available via the opening of childcare facilities and parents’ newfound opportunities to continue their careers. This development would stimulate local economies all over America, pulling people out of poverty and greatly expanding the opportunities available to future generations of rural Americans. 

For an interactive look at the relationship between poverty and access to childcare, visit https://childcaredeserts.org/ .

To donate to Pendleton Children’s Center, visit https://pendletonchildrenscenter.org/donate/ .



This article serves as an engagement for the author’s Global Politics Internal Assessment. It has been edited for length and clarity and to uphold Inkwell’s standards for published content.