The economic recession and other complications that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years have amplified a decades-old problem: Child care is out of reach for low- and middle-income families across the United States. While the cost of child care alone is often prohibitive for people who need services, providers’ lack of availability or proximity to families creates an additional and equally profound barrier to access. Indeed, 50 percent of families live in communities defined as child care deserts: areas with so few providers or available child care slots that they do not have enough child care capacity to meet the needs of families.1
“I started looking when I was 13 weeks pregnant, started getting on waitlist[s], because I knew how hard it was.”2 – Meagan, mother of a 7-month-old daughter (Nashua, New Hampshire)
Whether facing long waitlists, overcoming significant burdens of transportation, sacrificing quality for affordability or geographic proximity, or scaling back on work commitments or leaving work entirely to provide care full time, many families go to extreme lengths to compensate for the gaps in care that child care deserts create. Therefore, one key method of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic must involve targeted efforts to build supply that will create greater access to child care. Expanding access to reliable, high-quality services through sustained federal investments will offer parents—particularly mothers, and especially mothers of color—the support they need to work or advance their careers and gain greater earnings and economic security for their families.
The Center for American Progress’ series on child care deserts measures the child care supply across all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Specifically, ChildCareDeserts.org plots localized data for neighborhoods across the country on an interactive map, providing users with a tool to view and overlay maps.3 Doing so shows the prevalence of child care deserts relative to other key community predictors, such as poverty rates, the percentage of the community that is Hispanic/Latinx or Black, the percentage of the community that has a college degree, and the median family income and housing value. Although CAP collected these data in 2018, prior to the start of the pandemic, experts’ estimates that the pandemic would exacerbate the prevalence of child care deserts held true.4 And while an anticipated loss of nearly half of the country’s child care supply was largely mitigated by the implementation of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in early 2021,5 more than 16,000 center-based and licensed home-based care providers have permanently closed since 2020,6 amounting to a loss of 9 percent of providers nationally. To date, almost half a million families across the country still struggle to find care. 7
Learn more about child care deserts in America
Sustained federal investment in child care can help families access affordable care while bolstering a child care workforce that is disproportionately occupied by women of color, almost half of whom rely on public assistance to make their salaries stretch to meet basic needs. In particular, any comprehensive solution to the child care crisis must: 1) Build supply; 2) expand affordability; and 3) support the child care workforce.
CAP community conversations
CAP partnered with community leaders in Nashua, New Hampshire; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to facilitate four community conversations and learn directly from parents of young children and child care providers about the challenges faced by those living in child care deserts. Each community conversation was conducted over a video call and included six to seven participants. A community organizer in each location convened and facilitated each conversation with parents of young children. The Albuquerque organizer also hosted a second conversation, conducted in Spanish, that comprised both family child care and center-based providers.
The perspectives of conversation participants informed the key themes included in this report.
1. Build supply
For decades, families have struggled to find affordable child care options that provide the necessary quality care for their young children while they work. The extreme undersupply of child care options often means enduring multimonth—sometimes yearlong—waitlists during a time of rapid brain development in a young child’s life.8 Each month brings exciting milestones and opportunities to learn in an enriching and nurturing environment, and capitalizing on that early growth to support better long-term outcomes is essential. However, parents who are desperate to find a program with an opening that fits their budget are often forced to sacrifice the quality of the care their child receives.
For example, a mother of two who participated in CAP’s community conversations said that when she started looking for child care, “the waitlists were so long that all of [her] standards went out the window, and it turned into … whoever can just take these kids for a few hours so [she could] work.”9 By the time her second child was ready for child care, she luckily found a provider “that ended up being well above every standard [she had] originally set, but [she] felt like that was almost a Cinderella story: It almost never happens that way.”10
America’s current child care crisis builds on a long history of underinvestment in a critical system that makes all other work possible.11 Many child care programs operate on razor-thin margins, with the understanding that they provide an essential service for families in their communities. Due to the high costs associated with running a high-quality child care program, however, providers are often left with little or no profits at the end of the month and are unable to access the capital required to expand their capacity, reduce waitlists, and serve more children. When the costs exceed what parents can pay, providers are often forced to further cut back on their ability to provide care by reducing staff or curtailing other expenses, which in turn may hurt their quality ratings.
America’s current child care crisis builds on a long history of underinvestment in a critical system that makes all other work possible.
In March 2021, the ARPA took a crucial step toward creating a strong child care system by providing critical resources to stabilize the current child care market and begin efforts to build child care supply.12 Yet the industry still requires transformative provisions to distribute resources that would enable states to create a well-supplied, equitable child care system that includes a variety of provider types at affordable rates, available when and where parents need them most.
Comprehensive federal investments that explicitly prioritize supply-building efforts by offering grants for providers to expand or build new programs may alleviate the burden of waitlists for parents across the country. This includes parents such as Meagan, a mother in Nashua, New Hampshire, who waited two months for her 6-month-old son to be eligible for an infant room at an available child care facility,13 as well as Andrea, another participant, who stated that her “biggest barrier, for [sic] so many years … is the transportation.”14 Now, Andrea’s 5-year-old son is enrolled in a preschool program that can only offer mid-day care services from 12:10 p.m. to 2:40 p.m., forcing her to balance the need for him to receive care with an awkward schedule that often conflicts with her work.
It is also vital that any proposed legislation take an equitable approach toward supply-building, with states prioritizing grants to providers that work with historically underserved communities, including children from low-income families, infants and toddlers, children with disabilities, dual-language learners, children experiencing homelessness and in foster or kinship care, and children who require care during nontraditional hours.15 Comprehensive federal investments can create a unified child care system that provides more options for families that are closer to home and work and that account for the specific needs of families within the community by increasing the number of programs serving young children while also targeting communities historically excluded from the system.
2. Expand affordability
Comprehensive investments in a unified child care system could expand access to affordable child care for more than 13 million subsidy-eligible families, benefiting young children and parents across the country.16 Taisha from Nashua, New Hampshire, is one of those parents: “It’s pretty much rent for a month,” she said. “You’re paying a good amount of money for the child care, and you’re still barely even making the check after.”17 Under current law, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) provides states with federal dollars to be used as subsidies for low-income families in order to offset the high cost of child care. However, these subsidies only reach a fraction of eligible children and fail to cover the true cost of providing quality care, leaving parents with large copayments that still do not cover providers’ expenses.18
“Sometimes you qualify, sometimes you don’t. So, then you’re coming out of your pocket for daycare every week … and that’s hard as a single mother of five … with one income.”19 – Venus, a single parent of five, including a 24-month-old (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
High child care prices have long placed a financial burden on families across the income spectrum, hindering both family economic security and economic growth. Over the past three decades, child care prices have increased at almost 4 percent over the rate of inflation, and the typical family spends $13,000 annually on child care expenses. For some families in the Northeast, these costs can reach beyond $20,000 annually—more than the average cost of housing and college tuition in the region.20
As a result, parents—especially mothers—find themselves forced to make difficult career sacrifices due to soaring prices and the dearth of available quality options. In particular, mothers who cannot afford to leave their work because their family’s economic security depends on their income find themselves engaging in a regular battle to get affordable care for their children, often sacrificing quality or convenience.21
Participants from all four community conversations discussed facing tough decisions to either reduce their work hours or leave the workforce altogether—sacrificing critical family income—because they could not find quality, affordable child care options. Others pointed to the benefits of quality programming, particularly that which helps parents, including one participant, afford basic necessities such as “diapers and meals” and offers “wraparound services for families, things like parents’ support groups, [which are] beneficial, especially for single parents’ mental health.”22
With sustained federal investments in child-friendly policies, not only would more families become eligible to receive child care assistance, but families could also be guaranteed to pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care expenses—what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines as “affordable.”23 Indeed, policies that provide comprehensive child care services could lower the typical family’s annual child care costs by thousands of dollars—about $5,000 to $6,500 in most states—putting care within reach for families with low and middle incomes.24
Addressing infant and toddler child care deserts
Comprehensive federal investments could explicitly address the unique challenges associated with building the supply of infant and toddler child care,25 which is more costly to provide than care for older children, largely because infants and toddlers require more material goods for care, and more child care workers are needed per group of children.26 For mothers of infants and toddlers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, finding a program with safe and developmentally appropriate care for their youngest children that is separate from their older children’s was a key factor when choosing a provider, but it was also challenging to find and afford. Biby, from Albuquerque, noted the importance of developmentally appropriate care when she said, “If there is going to be 1 teacher for [sic] 50 children, then obviously [they are not] going to have the attention that each one of those children needs.”27 Dayana echoed, “Although it is more accessible by the price, [sic] I did not love [having] my children like that because they have [sic] them all together.”28
Read more on infant and toddler child care deserts:
Investments in child care could give providers the financial flexibility to expand their offerings, particularly among underserved populations, including infants and toddlers. This would help ensure that state preschool programs do not disrupt the stability of states’ infant and child care markets; early childhood programs often get edged out because of their comparatively higher costs of operation.29
3. Support the child care workforce
The COVID-19 pandemic clarified the essential role that child care providers play in enabling parents to work. Yet the public health emergency also exacerbated challenges that the child care workforce has faced for decades—largely due to a systemic and deeply-rooted undervaluing of work predominantly done by women and people of color—particularly the severe under-compensation and lack of workforce supports to enhance providers’ ability to offer high-quality child care.30 For example, prior to the pandemic, 23 percent of child care providers faced food insecurity,31 a rate that has increased to nearly one-third, or 29 percent, as of 2021.32 In a recent Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development-Early Childhood survey, more than 40 percent of child care workers—who are disproportionately women of color33—reported that child care accounted for less than half of their income, and one-quarter reported needing to take on at least one additional job.34
The proportion of child care workers who faced food insecurity in 2021
As a result, since February 2020, the child care profession has seen a decrease of more than 100,000 workers as they seek out sustainable and livable wages in more lucrative sectors, resulting in understaffed programs unable to operate at full capacity and further straining the already-limited supply of child care options.35 Poverty wages, coupled with increasingly stressful working conditions during the pandemic, have resulted in this mass exodus of child care workers from the field.36 Even among child care center directors, almost 10 percent struggle to afford food, and more than 5 percent struggle to pay for utility bills or make housing payments.37
Despite the paramount role of child care providers in ensuring that young children receive nurturing and enriching care, many struggle to stretch poverty wages to afford basic necessities and suffer from the toxic stress associated with chronic financial instability.38 Increasing compensation and professional development supports and providing essential benefits, such as paid family and medical leave, for child care providers and professionals would expand the availability of quality options for families, as providers passionate about caring for young children would be more likely to retain their jobs if they could afford a career in the profession.39
Moreover, compensating providers fairly and supporting workforce development would help programs recruit and retain qualified caregivers who can afford to remain as early educators. Adequate funding would help both increase supply of programs and ensure quality because, as overwhelmingly suggested by existing research and data, consistent and stable caregiving is beneficial for child development.40
What does a comprehensive economic package look like?
Existing federal policy, such as the CCDBG, is a necessary part of distributing funds that support parents’ child care costs and bolster providers’ abilities to offer care services. Working against decades of disinvestment and the steadily rising cost of care, however, the CCDBG program only reaches 1 in 9 eligible children under age 6.41 While not mutually exclusive—indeed, CCDBG funds reaching low-income families is a necessary part of U.S. child care infrastructure—a more comprehensive economic package achieved through sustained federal investment is a key solution to the problem. It would help create a robust child care system that reaches every family, boosts supply that expands parents’ care options for their children, and supports high-quality programming by investing in the child care workforce. Only through comprehensive investments, however, can key policy changes aimed at boosting supply, reducing costs for families, and creating a robust workforce become a reality.
The child care sector is at a pivotal juncture. Its stabilization in the past year, as a result of the infusion of federal rescue funds through the ARPA, points to promising outcomes of sustained federal efforts.42 But child care workforce supports still lag behind those of other sectors and remain weighed down by decades of underinvestment and a devaluation of the labor of women—particularly women of color.43 Families require better supports to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger and more financially stable, and child care serves a critical role in America’s economic recovery.
Only through comprehensive investments can key policy changes aimed at boosting supply, reducing costs for families, and creating a robust workforce become a reality.
Parents need options that, at a minimum, ensure their children’s safety—a common theme that arose in the focus groups spearheaded by CAP. They envision a system that provides enriching age-appropriate educational opportunities and nurturing caregivers that are available long enough to build strong, supportive relationships with their children. They need providers that offer nontraditional hours so that they can afford to work shift jobs and find care for more than just two hours in the middle of the day. They need programs that support the unique needs of their families—such as those that are close to home, that help mitigate transportation problems, or that offer Spanish-speaking care arrangements.
Sustained federal investments in a comprehensive national child care system have the potential to resolve foundational flaws that have led to an unstable market that is reactive to threats from the pandemic and has cascading consequences for every other labor sector. As Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) observed at a recent hearing held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, “Everybody seems to agree”: The child care sector must build supply, support its workforce, and meet the needs of families.44 It is critical—for families, early educators, and the broader economy—that the federal government take bold, comprehensive action on child care that addresses supply, affordability, and workforce challenges.