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Welcome to Life in America’s Child Care Deserts

A little girl in a day care center with collage elements all around her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

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.”

Malik and Hamm took information from child care location databases in 22 states and complemented it with census data to create a road map for America’s child care deserts. The proportion of residents living in such areas ranges from 62 percent in California to 24 percent in Iowa, they found. The study, which represents two-thirds of the U.S. population, is the second iteration of work the duo began in 2016.

By analyzing the locations of licensed child care providers, the researchers found about half of Americans live in child care deserts.

The absence of child care makes it difficult for employers to attract qualified workers in some of the region’s hottest job markets, such as Denver. About 30 percent of Coloradans live in child care deserts, according to the center’s study. Supply is especially low, it found, in urban areas, where more than 1 in 3 live in census blocks without enough licensed providers. Hispanic communities are also disproportionately represented, Malik and Hamm found.

Like elsewhere in the country, the mismatch between demand and supply in the Centennial State threatens the economic security of families, because women’s labor force participation is lower in neighborhoods without adequate licensed care. Nearly 2 million parents of kids aged 5 and younger had quit a job, not taken one, or greatly changed their position because of child care issues in 2016 alone, according to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health.

The shortage is also expensive for businesses. Productivity losses resulting from absenteeism due to child care issues cost companies about $4 billion annually, according to Child Care Aware.

This issue is front and center for about 25 firms, including medical centers, SBank, and HunterDouglas, who belong to the WorkLife Partnership, a Denver-based nonprofit that funnels dues from its members into programs designed to retain employees. Using grant money, the 9-year-old effort instituted a pilot program six months ago to increase child care slots in deserts along the I-70 and I-225 corridors that crisscross the city’s lower-income communities.

“We are really trying to find a better solution for the changing world of work and the positions that are growing,” said Liddy Romero, WorkLife’s founder and executive director, who hopes to replicate the program nationwide through her firm’s WorkLab Innovations branch. “We know that job growth in Colorado is not in 9–5 positions, but those outside normal work hours.”

Romero’s organization sent a child care business manager with more than a quarter century of experience in the industry to consult with home-based child care operations. She taught them how to make their business viable, provided them with expensive curriculum and home-repair help, and advised them on how to obtain a license so they could add capacity.

She also provided technical expertise to centers, in part by listing them on Care.com. The partnership between the online marketplace and Romero’s nonprofit not only helps families find the centers but helps WorkLife employees more efficiently assist clients in finding care for their children, she said.

“We were wasting so much time calling lists of people, only to be told that they didn’t have space,” she added.

The 17 centers that Romero’s nonprofit partnered with increased their capacity over the past six months by 53 percent, she said. Her firm is gearing up to reach out to 35 additional in-home providers.

In Alameda County, California, supervisors hope to see similar rates of return if residents vote on June 5 to enact a 30-year half-percent sales tax that would generate about $140 million annually. The measure has a high bar—a two-thirds majority of votes is required for passage. But if it passes, it would expand access to child care and preschool in part by funding thousands of new scholarships for kids from low- and middle-income families.

The diverse region, which includes Berkeley and Oakland, is a magnet for tech companies that are driving up the cost of living. More than 115,000 children in the county lack access to formal child care and early education, according to a program plan formulated to support the measure.

In Illinois, Thompson recently moved to her family’s farm in rural Bloomington, about one hour from her previous home in Mahomet. Although she and her husband were happy with the farm-home day care she finally found in that area for their son Abe before he was born, that center was too far away for them now.

A new search for day care for the 1½-year-old began in the same fashion as the first one: She made calls to in-home providers—all of whom were full—but finally located spots in a larger center in Bloomington.

“I did call 10 in-home providers in the area and none of them had openings,” Thompson said. “But all the centers in town did and now that he’s older we are more comfortable with him in a larger environment.”

Jennifer Oldham is a Denver-based freelance journalist specializing in economic inequality.