Earlier this month the Center for American Progress released an update of its reporting into America’s child care deserts. In 2016, CAP introduced a working definition of child care deserts, areas with an insufficient supply of licensed child care, defining them as census tracts were there were more than three times as many children under the age of five as licensed child care slots. In 2017, CAP analyzed data from 22 states, covering two-thirds of the U.S. population and including California, demonstrating that a majority of Americans live in child care deserts. This year’s analysis includes data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and reinforces the finding that more than half of Americans—51 percent—live in neighborhoods classified as child care deserts.
The report also disaggregates the data to find that 59% of rural, 56% of urban and 44% of suburban census tracts qualify as child care deserts under their definition. In each case, lower income census tracts are more likely than higher income to meet the criterion – demonstrating a pattern of inequitable access where those children who would benefit the most from access to quality early care and education (ECE) are least live to live close to it. One caveat to this finding is that families may access ECE outside their census tract of residence (this is especially likely in urban settings). When disaggregated by race/ethnicity the data show that Hispanic/Latino populations have the least access to licensed child care (57% ) – with immigrant Hispanic/Latino having lower access than native born Hispanic/Latino families – while African American have the highest (44%). Non-Hispanic white and Asian populations are close to the 51% population-wide average.

All of these numbers are worse in California. Overall, 60% of the state’s population lives in a child care desert – which ranks 42nd out of the 51 states and Washington DC. When examined by race, 55% of non-Hispanic whites, 64% of African American and 67% of Hispanic/Latino people in California live in child care deserts. While 43% of high income neighborhoods nation-wide are child care deserts, that number increases to 47% in California. For low-income communities, the opportunity gap is even wider: 72% of the lowest quintile census tracts in California are child care deserts, compared with 54% across the whole of the country.

The barriers to access are higher for families with additional challenges. Child care slots for children ages zero to three are for less common than for preschoolers. Providers are generally less able to provide care for children with disabilities – despite the Americans with Disabilities Act requirement that programs cannot exclude children with disabilities unless including them requires a “fundamental alteration of the program”. Children whose home language is not English require staff trained to support dual language learners and their families may need different kinds of outreach and support with enrollment. Finally, many families may need care outside the traditional 9 to 5 work day or the school year. All these challenges lead to lower-than-expected enrollment for these families.

The report concludes with a variety of policy recommendations that will be familiar to those in the ECE field: improved data collection, increased public investment including higher reimbursement rates, facilities funding and systems building. The full report can be found at https://ampr.gs/2QAAJip.