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Hamilton County combats child care shortages hitting rural Iowa

A program in Hamilton County aims at helping child care facilities attract and keep qualified workers.

WEBSTER CITY, Iowa — Child care is a challenge for parents across Iowa, especially for families living in rural communities. 

Rosie Messerly has been looking out for kids in Webster City for 25 years. These days, she is the director of Riverview Early Childhood Center. 

Over the last few years, she's noticed a change in child care accessibility.

"Sometimes parents are waiting one-to-two years [for child care]," Messerly said. "Our school-age program, we're looking at a five-plus year wait."

The biggest issue is staffing these day care centers, and the reason for that, as complex as it is, really comes down to money. 

"It's like this vicious cycle," said McKinley Bailey, executive director of Building Families. 

Bailey said that cycle starts with pay. 

"We're in this sad reality where the people that care for our children every single day are paid less than the people that care for our cheeseburgers," Bailey said. 

The lower pay means fewer workers, which then leads to limited capacities and sometimes lower quality of care.

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And another factor making it worse for rural communities is that child care facilities simply can't charge parents any more money without pricing families out. 

"There just aren't enough parents who can pay $300 a child or $250 a child," said Bailey. 

However, Riverview has found success thanks to a private-public partnership. Hamilton County, Webster City and local businesses have chipped in to provide area employees with child care services. 

"The community that is putting money into a bonus program that helps us to have like a hiring bonus and a bonus program for retention of staff," said Messerly. 

A similar program will expand to other areas of the county, but McKinley said long-term solutions are needed to address problems that touch every aspect of a community. 

"Child care is a critical piece of every community's livelihood and well-being, and that we have to invest in it," he said.