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Welcome to Life in America’s Child Care Deserts

April 13, 2018
Jennifer Oldham

Record-breaking waiting lists for child care nationwide are forcing families in some locations to plan a baby’s arrival around when a day care center in their area expects an opening.

Working parents from Berkeley, California, to Illinois to New York report calling scores of providers in vain. The shortage is so acute that child care researchers coined a new term for it. Inspired by the description of the absence of grocery stores in impoverished areas as food deserts, they dubbed these regions child care deserts.

Little is understood about the supply of day care in the U.S. Research to date focused in large part on its budget-busting cost. What is clear is this: The market is failing to meet the needs of working parents with kids under 5, and this problem is especially severe in certain places. What’s more, these areas are difficult to pinpoint, with deficits plaguing urban inner cities, suburban regions, and rural towns.

“I didn’t expect our area to have a shortage of providers, given the demographics—there were a lot of young families,” said Heather Thompson, who started her search in Champaign County, Illinois, in 2016 when she was five months pregnant. “I called 42 providers and none of them had openings.”

As the nation’s labor market tightens, businesses, county governments, and state legislatures are taking notice of the plights of parents like Thompson. At least 26 states passed laws related to child care access, cost, safety, and quality in 2016, the latest year for which data is available, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The changes were meant in part to improve access in child care deserts, which researchers at the Center for American Progress define as any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no providers or so few that there are more than three times as many kids as licensed spots.

In this session, state legislatures are debating how to incentivize child care business development through grants and technical assistance to startups as well as trainings for existing programs, said Julie Poppe, the National Conference of State Legislatures’ manager for the children and families program. Politicians are also discussing bills that address waiting lists, expand child care eligibility to low-income families, increase reimbursement rates for providers, and boost quality, she said.

Minnesota lawmakers are considering bills fashioned after findings in a report by a legislative task force that concluded the state lost 15,000 child care spaces from 2005–14. Like Thompson’s experience nearly 500 miles to the south, the study determined infant care was “nearly impossible” to find in the North Star State, with new parents required to “contact endless numbers of providers to secure a spot.”

“There’s a ubiquitous undersupply of child care—we see waiting lists everywhere,” said Rasheed Malik, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress who worked with Katie Hamm, the center’s vice president for early childhood policy, on a project entitled “Mapping America’s Child Care Deserts.” And according to Malik, that’s because of the way the U.S.
relies on private businesses to provide child care: “This is not an area where businesses can profit.”