Let’s Take a Closer Look at “Child Care Deserts”

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) looks at “Child Care Deserts,” which CAP defines as communities with no licensed child care centers, or where the number of children under age five dramatically exceeds licensed child care center capacity. Looking acrossChildCareDeserts the eight states for which CAP was able to acquire data, the analysis finds that nearly half of children in these states live in child care deserts. Quality child care settings are even more scarce.

The analysis also illustrates significant geographic variation in how child care is distributed. Rural children are particularly likely to live in child care deserts: nearly 55 percent of rural children live in such communities, as opposed to about one-third of both urban and suburban kids. The percentage of children living in child care deserts varies across states: from less than one-third in Maryland, to roughly two-thirds of all children under five in Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois. Communities with high or low rates of poverty tend to have more childcare access, while those in the middle are more likely to be child care deserts. This suggests that public subsidies and publicly funded programs have been successful in improving access to childcare in communities with more poor families. Urban and higher-poverty communities also tended to have higher quality child care options.

It’s an interesting and important analysis, and CAP deserves credit for casting light on issues of child care supply, in addition to cost, and bringing an empirical light to these conversations. A few caveats are worth noting, however:

  • Demand for child care is a complicated thing. CAP’s analysis uses the number of children in a community under age 5 as a proxy for demand for child care, but it’s an imperfect proxy. Research from the census bureau indicates that more than half of families with children under age 5 do not pay for child care, including some families in which the mother works full time. In some communities, there may limited demand for child care because many families prefer to stay home with their children, use informal and family care arrangements, or because there are few attractive work opportunities for parents. Obviously, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here: Child care supply may be low in some communities because demand is also limited, but it’s also possible that more parents would work and demand childcare if more options were available. To really solve this problem at a local level, much better analysis on demand is required.
  • Growing capacity requires targeted investments in supply. CAP highlights their proposal for a High-Quality Child Care Tax Credit as a strategy to increase supply of quality child care, by providing parents with more resources to pay for care. But building the supply of quality care in communities with few existing options will likely require more direct supply-side strategies to incentivize new providers to open or existing quality operators to expand to these communities (as I wrote about in the first chapter of our recent release), and to help cover start-up costs. The investments that I’ve proposed to build the supply of quality schools could also help to grow the supply of quality child care in underserved communities.
  • Child care “swamps” are also a problem. CAP’s analysis focuses on communities with a lack of child care supply. This is clearly an issue in some rural communities. And if you live in a high-cost urban area like Washington, D.C., where families often face long wait lists for child care slots, it can be easy to think child care shortages are a national problem. But oversupply of child care in some communities is equally problematic. Many states’ regulatory policies create few barriers to entry into the market. This can lead to more seats than children who need them, resulting in under-enrollment that makes it hard for providers to be economically viable or to have the resources they need to invest in quality. This is exacerbated when operators open child care centers without fully assessing market need or developing strong business models. Improving access to quality child care in these communities may actually require increasing barriers to entry, reducing the number of child care slots, and developing concerted strategies to direct or match families with higher quality options.