ORANGE, AAP – Samantha Burns felt a strong pull back to country Australia.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my being,” the businesswoman tells AAP.
Ms Burns had been planning to return to her rural roots for years, and looked to move from Sydney to Orange, in central west NSW, in 2019.
But two enormous barriers stood in her way: the lack of childcare for her daughter and a shortage of rentals.
The issues of housing and essential services like childcare are deeply intertwined across regional Australia. Country towns are growing, putting pressure on housing affordability, which in turn affects essential workers like early childhood educators.
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Ms Burns delayed her move to the country by 18 months to ensure her daughter could get into care, after being told waiting lists at all centres were a year or much longer.
Many families in the region say they have been on waiting lists for years and have been told care may not be available until 2023. Some mothers have had to delay the return to work, or leave the workforce entirely.
“Our economy demands us to be working most of the time,” said Ms Burns, the founder of Ollie and Max fashion label.
“We’re in a demanding economic environment, we need to be able to work.”
A new report from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute shows up to 61 per cent of people in outer regional areas are living in a “childcare desert”, an area where there are more than three children for every childcare place.
Regions with the least availability include Daylesford, Victoria, Queensland’s central highlands, mid-north South Australia, Brighton, Tasmania, Manjimup, WA, and Broken Hill in NSW.
Jacqui Emery, chief executive of country children’s health charity Royal Far West, said rural children are twice as likely than their city peers to have developmental challenges.
“There’s some wonderful advantages of growing up in the country. It’s not all bad,” Ms Emery said.
“But postcodes shouldn’t determine the level of service that you can access.
“It’s a system that’s broken.”
Another problem is the rural workforce, with essential workers facing challenging workloads, isolation, and low pay, she said.
The United Workers’ Union says these conditions will exacerbate shortages.
“Rising costs of living and a lack of housing affordability will only accelerate the workforce crisis in early childhood education as workers leave the job they love for one that pays the bills,” UWU’s early education director Helen Gibbons said.
Kimberley Townsend, a mother of three and a mine worker on maternity leave, has been trying to access in-home care to cover early mornings and late evenings not covered by daycare centres in Orange.
The cost of in-home care, preschool and daycare fees would total $2000 a week, even with the federal government’s childcare subsidy.
The cost and availability issues become a disincentive for women to return to their roles, Ms Townsend said.
“It’s your career. I speak with my friends about it, and the majority is women having to change their roles or jobs.”
Her family relies on a grandparent to cover gaps in childcare.
“It’s full-on. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t have support.”