Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children


Across the country, parents are discovering that they live in “child care deserts,” communities where they can’t find an appropriate spot for their children.

This is a particularly tough problem for the parents of very young children, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress called, “Understanding Infant and Toddler Child Care Deserts.”

The report looks at supply and demand in nine states — Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia — and in Washington, D.C.

Nationally, child child care deserts aren’t just a problem in large, rural states, but also in the rural areas of smaller states — and anywhere where demand for child care is greater than supply. Past studies have shown, for example, that Massachusetts has a deficit of 93,119 child care slots. So when current programs are full to capacity, nearly 1 in 4 Massachusetts children is left without access to child care.”

What the Center for American Progress found in the nine states it looked at was that “the number of children under age 3 far exceeds the number of child care slots available for infants and toddlers.”

On average, there are more than five infants and toddlers (under age 3) for every one licensed, age-appropriate, child care slot.

Specifically, “there are 19 counties—all of which are mostly or completely rural—across six states that have no licensed child care capacity for infants and toddlers. Of the 547 counties included in this analysis, just 20 have a licensed child care slot for every three children under 3.”

In addition, “lower-income areas had the lowest supply of licensed infant and toddler child care. Counties with a median family income in the bottom 20 percent of all counties in that state have about seven infants and toddlers per slot.”

Consider Benton County, Miss., where things look good. As the report notes, Benton has “one of the highest parental employment rates in the state” and more than half of “3- and 4-year-old children… are enrolled in preschool…”

Benton County’s problem: “There is not a single licensed child care provider in the entire county that enrolls infants or toddlers.”

The larger problem for the whole country: infant/toddler care is incredibly expensive.

“Safe and age-appropriate care for the youngest children requires low staff ratios and small group sizes, which are costly to deliver.”

“The average cost of providing infant care in the United States is estimated at nearly $15,000 per year, more than 20 percent of the typical family’s income.”

Child care subsidies help, but they only reach “a fraction of eligible families,” and subsides are “rarely sufficient to cover the cost of providing infant and toddler care.”

The consequences of these deserts affect families and workplaces:

“When working families cannot find licensed child care, they may leave the workforce altogether or rely on a patchwork of arrangements in unlicensed programs or through extended family members, friends, or neighbors.”

This happens at a time when children’s brains are developing rapidly — exactly when they should have access to high-quality care that protects and promotes this neurological progress.

What can policymakers do to address the problem? Here are some of the report’s recommendations:

• improve data collection on infant and toddler child care

• increase public investment in this care, and

• build child care “infrastructure” by investing in child care buildings and facilities, by supporting the systems that license child care providers, and by expanding the number of qualified early educators

Addressing these issues is a matter of establishing fairness and creating better opportunities for very young children. As the report concludes:

“Given the critical importance of the first years of life, it is crucial that federal and state elected officials focus on the needs of infants and toddlers.”

“Every family should be able to access affordable licensed child care, regardless of the county they live in or the age of their child.”