Life in America’s Child Care Deserts

My husband and I run an oil and vinegar shop in Minneapolis. We love helping customers brighten their meals, but another reason we started our business doesn’t fit neatly into marketing materials: We needed child care, and we couldn’t make it work any other way.

Here in Minnesota, we have the fourth highest costs in the nation for infant care. What’s more, 44 percent of Minnesotans live in a child care desert, where there are simply no spots for anyone.

For two years after we had our son, we did our best to piece together day care and work. We sat on countless waitlists. I even delayed taking a job until my son had aged out of the most expensive infant care category, which costs more than in-state college tuition.

Even with all our juggling, I was still only taking home $244 a week after child care expenses. It just didn’t seem worth it. I quit my job to stay home, but I knew we’d have to find another solution soon.

For my husband and me, the best choice was to go into business ourselves, arrange our schedules as best we could, and get help with child care from family and friends.

With this help, we got by. But the irony is that it’s very hard for family businesses to provide family-friendly jobs. We can’t offer the support with child care, paid leave, and health care that large corporations can.

And what about work schedules? Most daycares close at 6pm, but we close at 7pm. It’s even more complicated for shift workers and 24-hour employees in other industries.

We aren’t alone. Small businesses in our area are scrambling to retain employees with kids, or having to scale back hours and serve fewer clients. A lot of women leave the workforce entirely, like I did.

When one of our first employees was pregnant, we offered her more time off after her baby was born. But she wanted to come back after just two weeks because she needed the paycheck.

Luckily, she had a family member who could take care of her child. But whenever that fell through, she missed work.

According to Child Care Aware, over a six-month period, 45 percent of working parents missed work at least once due to child care breakdowns. Businesses lose over $4 billion annually because of these issues.

This is unfair — not just for small businesses, but for our society as a whole.

Women are more likely to shoulder caregiving than men, and lack of affordable care limits their economic independence. Low-income families of color are disproportionately impacted by high costs, while rural communities are most likely to be classified as “child care deserts.”

And, of course, the current system puts small businesses at a major disadvantage to big corporations with the resources to subsidize on-site care.

We do our best to help our employees who, like us, are parents. But the truth is, we’ve come to the limits of what we can do as individual business owners. When others ask me what they can do, I tell them we need to talk with our representatives.

We need lawmakers to invest in high-quality child care for everyone in our country. We need innovative solutions like the Child Care for Working Families Act that address the crisis from three fronts — maintaining care quality, ensuring quality jobs, and capping costs for families.

If we believe in small business, we need our lawmakers to change this system. Child care isn’t just a family issue — it’s an economic one, too.

Sarah Piepenburg is the co-owner of Vinaigrette in Minneapolis, Minnesota and a member of the Main Street Alliance.