LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — Discussions took on something of a bleak tone when the plight of families — particularly young, rural and working parents — came up during discussion.

“People are desperate,” said Christine Gesme of Harmony House of Little Falls, who noted she no longer adds more parents to her waiting list of 150 families. “I’ve had people asking me when was a good time for them to get pregnant. That’s real and that’s a real odd conversation. What do you tell these families who just want to work and raise their children?”

Gov. Tim Walz, flanked by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, visited the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls Wednesday, July 10, to host a gathering of elected officials, government heads, child care providers, nonprofits and other experts. They aimed to invigorate an ongoing (and some members would say, decades long) discussion about how to address the issue of child care.

“This is a key issue of economic growth,” said Walz, who noted the state economy has a return of $12 for every $1 spent on child care. “This isn’t just a nice thing to have, it’s a necessity for hiring, retaining and recruiting an effective workforce.”

Matt Varilek (left), CEO and president of the Initiative Foundation, speaks with Gov. Tim Walz minutes prior to a roundtable discussion  Wednesday, July 10, on rural child care at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Matt Varilek (left), CEO and president of the Initiative Foundation, speaks with Gov. Tim Walz minutes prior to a roundtable discussion Wednesday, July 10, on rural child care at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

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The United States is approaching a labor crisis as younger generations struggle to care for children and work at the same time, Walz said, while baby boomers continue to age out of the workforce without ready successors.

And the answer, members of the roundtable discussion observed, while often complex and difficult to quantify, looks to rest in the hands of private-public partnerships between government entities and small business entrepreneurs with a knack for child care.

“We need to step back a bit, take the blinders off and say ‘OK, what really works here? What are some creative solutions,” said state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls.

Walz spoke of collaboration — often framing the issue in terms of “streamlined programs,” “private-public partnerships” and “upstream thinking.” Urging greater Minnesota towns to reject the idea they’re little more than “broken Minneapolises,” Walz said the problem takes on different dimensions in rural communities, where overwhelmed day cares are few and far between, often entailing a roughly two-hour round commute for working parents.

Gov. Tim Walz (left) chats with Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka minutes prior to a roundtable discussion Wednesday, July 10, at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. Discussion members looked to tackle the issue of child care in rural Minnesota. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Gov. Tim Walz (left) chats with Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka minutes prior to a roundtable discussion Wednesday, July 10, at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. Discussion members looked to tackle the issue of child care in rural Minnesota. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

In turn, child care, he said, forms the root of many societal ills — everything from employers struggling to find available workers, to a precipitous population decline, to overcrowded prisons filled with neglected children who became broken adults.

According to data provided by the Greater Minnesota Partnership, the status of child care in rural areas of the state is dire — evidenced by a 27% decline in child care providers statewide between 2006 to 2015. This, while nearly 74% of families with children below the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce.

Lawmakers have pointed fingers at different causes — with members of the Republican Party largely blaming stifling regulations and draconian agencies for this decline, while Democrats largely paint the issue as a lack of funding, which trickles down to narrow profit margins, overwhelmed providers and underpaid caretakers.

Marcia Schlattman, the program manager of childhood development organization Milestones, said more than two-thirds of Minnesota providers report it’s a struggle to find worthy candidates to work as caretakers — most of whom are college educated, but often garner $12 per hour and no benefits.

“We need 37% growth in licensed child care to meet the shortfall,” Schlattman said. “If we are going to have the best and brightest people seeing to our children’s needs, we need to look at how our communities and policies provide support.”

Little Falls, the seat of Morrison County, represents a critical area of concern. As the county reported in early 2018, no less than 20 of its then 110 child care providers closed their doors between 2017 and 2018 alone.

Crow Wing County hinted at a similar conundrum that year as well, as reports indicate affordable housing and accessible child care are the primary reasons why more than 8,000 people were able, willing and want to join the labor force, but unable to for other extraneous reasons.

Gov. Tim Walz shakes hands Wednesday, July 10, with the young son of Initiative Foundation President Matt Verilek. Walz and Varilek joined a panel of child care providers, experts, lawmakers, nonprofit leaders and others to discuss the dire state of child care in rural Minnesota and potential solutions. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Gov. Tim Walz shakes hands Wednesday, July 10, with the young son of Initiative Foundation President Matt Verilek. Walz and Varilek joined a panel of child care providers, experts, lawmakers, nonprofit leaders and others to discuss the dire state of child care in rural Minnesota and potential solutions. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

Republicans call for deregulation

During the meeting, Kresha called for the Walz administration to push for less restrictions, monitoring and punitive measures for day cares across the state.

“Governor, we have got to take some of those regulations off,” Kresha told Walz. “We have got to stop rule-making. We have to stop rule-making our child care providers out of business. We have to trust the fact that child care providers are going to take care of their kids.”

In related statements, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — who did not attend Wednesday’s roundtable discussion — echoed Kresha and lambasted how state agencies have handled child care inspections in the past.

“We’ve made a good start on streamlining training requirements for child care center employees and reducing fix-it tickets for unnecessary violations like 'spikey grass,' plungers located near a toilet, and bicycle wheels in a yard for play,” Gazelka wrote.

“We also established a Family Child Care Task Force that will provide Department of Human Services with a better perspective on what discourages child care providers, many of them female-owned businesses, from starting up or expanding. I look forward to continuing to work on child care issues in the coming session.”