Mapping America’s Child Care Deserts

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Author(s): Center for American Progress

Published: Aug. 30, 2017

Report Intro/Brief:
"This report analyzes the locations of licensed child care providers in 22 states—covering two-thirds of the U.S. population—and finds that approximately half of Americans live in “child care deserts.” This term, adopted recently by the Center for American Progress and Child Care Aware of America, is taken from terminology used to discuss the problem of “food deserts.” In this report, the authors describe child care deserts as areas with little or no access to quality child care.

Specifically, this analysis defines child care deserts as neighborhoods or communities that are either lacking any child care options or have so few child care providers that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot. According to research published by the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of children under age 5 are regularly in nonrelative care; therefore, in places where there are more than three children for every child care slot, there may be child care waiting lists, unlicensed child care arrangements, or effects on parents’ employment decisions.

Key findings in this report include:

  • More than half of the population across the 22 states studied—51 percent—live in neighborhoods classified as child care deserts.
  • Fifty-eight percent of rural tracts qualify as child care deserts, while only 44 percent of suburban neighborhoods fit the definition. Urban areas where the median family income is below average also have high rates of child care deserts.
  • Hispanic/Latino and American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities are disproportionately represented in child care deserts, with roughly 60 percent of their combined populations living in areas with a low supply of child care. More than 75 percent of the rural AIAN population lives in a child care desert.
  • Child care deserts have, on average, maternal labor force participation rates 3 percentage points lower than communities where there is adequate child care supply. In communities where median family incomes are below the national average, this maternal employment gap is even wider.

Choosing a child care program is a complex decision for families. Factors such as cost, location, operating schedule, and personal preferences influence child care choices. A rich body of research documents the high cost of child care and the barrier that cost presents for most families, but supply issues are not as well-understood. Previous research suggests that the location of child care programs is especially salient for low-income parents, who may rely on public transportation or have limited job flexibility. This report provides a tool for analyzing child care supply across 22 states and sheds light on some of the most important characteristics associated with low child care supply. These data provide only a snapshot of child care shortages, not a complete picture of child care supply and demand in every community. Thus, this analysis is not designed to understand the directionality of the relationship between supply and demand. However, understanding proximity to licensed child care is an important component of child care access and can be used as a springboard for policy solutions that help families find high-quality child care that meets their needs.

This report also proposes policy recommendations designed to address the scarcity of high-quality child care providers. Child care is an essential part of employment infrastructure; as with roads and bridges, parents require child care to get to work. By investing in child care infrastructure as much as it does in bridges and roads, the federal government can support economic growth and family economic security."