More Than Half of Americans Live in “Child Care Deserts,” and We’re Not Doing Much to Fix It

A nursery school teacher supervises children in a day care center with tables and toys.
A nursery school teacher supervises children at a child day care center in Berlin. America desperately needs more of these. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

According to a report released Thursday, more than half of Americans live in “child care deserts,” defined by the report’s authors as areas where there are either no licensed child care providers for children under the age of five or there is less than one slot in a licensed child care center for every three children under the age of five. “America’s Child Care Deserts in 2018” is the second report from the Center for American Progress to look at the issue of child care availability in recent years. While the most recent analysis builds on the think tank’s previous research, it’s much more comprehensive than its predecessor, providing an analysis of the child care supply in every neighborhood in America. The report’s findings sketch a dire portrait of the country’s child care shortage, one that most parents in America are intimately familiar with.

While 51 percent of Americans live in areas classified as child care deserts, those deserts vary from state to state. So more than 75 percent of Utah neighborhoods are located in a child care desert but fewer than 23 percent of Maine neighborhoods are. A little over one-fifth of the country lives in a state where 60 percent or more of the neighborhoods constitute child care deserts. According to the report, “families in rural areas face the greatest challenges in finding licensed child care, with 3 in 5 rural communities lacking adequate child care supply.” Urban neighborhoods are also more likely than not to be child care deserts. Surprising no one, the areas least likely to experience child care shortages are high-income and suburban.

The report also found that Hispanic/Latino populations disproportionately reside in child care deserts and suggests that “all approaches to increasing the supply of child care in America will need to remedy the fact that child care seems to be consistently harder to find in communities with a high concentration of Hispanics/Latinos.” One of the least surprising but disappointing findings of the report is an association between child care deserts and lower labor force participation for mothers with young children. That difference, which was more pronounced among lower-income mothers and mothers with children under the age of 6, wasn’t observed for fathers’ labor force participation.

The report’s definition of child care deserts didn’t include unlicensed child care provided by a family, friends, or neighbors which, whether chosen out of preference or necessity, fills a significant gap in child care coverage. According to a 2018 analysis by the Women’s Law Center, somewhere around 37 percent of children under the age of 6 are in home-based child care. Still, the CAP report paints a bleak picture of the state of child care in America: Most families are just unable to find high-quality affordable child care. On the national stage, there seems to be little to no motivation to give the issue any thought, besides proposing tax breaks that will come too late for most families.

Universal quality child care and pre-K is not only an incredibly effective way to combat poverty, but gives increased opportunities to mothers, who still tend to shoulder the burden when there are no other options. There’s little doubt that a comprehensive solution to the crisis we find ourselves in is going to be expensive. Still, as the developed country who ranks fourth from last in terms of spending on child care and early education, we can certainly afford to spend more than what we’re currently (not) spending now. Only something as minor as the future of our children depends on it.