State Responses To Address the Shortage of Infant and Toddler Child Care

Even before the coronavirus crisis, parents struggled to find quality care for their youngest children. A recent CAP report estimated that roughly one licensed child care slot exists for every four children under the age of 3. Several states have responded to this shortage with efforts to increase access to affordable, quality child care for families with infants and toddlers. Their strategies have improved quality and access to infant and toddler care—but without greater federal investment, the already limited supply of affordable, quality child care faces the possibility of shrinking in half permanently due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. This column highlights four ways that states have taken action to improve access to child care for families with infants and toddlers, providing concrete steps for more communities to follow. 

Grants and contracting for slots

Some states have engaged in grants and contracts with child care providers to target areas with less infant and toddler child care as well as populations with less access to child care. Infants and toddlers require lower teacher-to-child ratios and smaller group sizes. Thus, the true cost of this type of care is often greater than the base child care subsidy reimbursement rate, which can create a barrier to providers wishing to offer care for infants and toddlers. Grants and contracts can provide a more stable funding stream than portable vouchers and are usually designed to cover a larger share of the actual cost of providing care. Georgia’s Quality Rated Subsidy Grants program and Oregon’s Baby Promise are two examples of this approach. Both programs award federal funds directly to providers through grants and contracts to create slots for children eligible to receive child care assistance, paid at a higher reimbursement rate than base subsidy rates. In Hawaii, administrators use contracts to increase access to child care for adolescent parents who have infants and toddlers and are enrolled in high school and parenting programs. And Colorado implemented a microgrant program to target child care deserts across the state. Grants and contracts also establish reliable public funding based on enrollment rather than attendance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this arrangement allowed some providers to continue receiving income to cover bills and prevent permanent closure.

Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships

Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships (EHS-CCPs) have also improved access to quality infant and toddler child care for families. This federally funded program provides resources to communities that lack adequate access to quality early learning opportunities and encourages collaborative relationships with providers who agree to meet EHS standards. One partnership operating in Bartlesville and Claremore, Oklahoma, improved both the quality of care and access for families from the Delaware Tribe of Indians and children who are not part of the tribal community. Through the partnership, the child care provider lowered teacher-to-child ratios to give children more individualized care; provided opportunities for professional development; ensured that all classrooms serve a mix of subsidy-eligible and higher-income families; and built new classrooms as well as a completely new child care center that will serve 148 additional children. While partnerships have achieved measurable gains for many communities, they require greater investment to reach more children and families, as all EHS programs only serve about 3 percent of eligible families. Similar to grants and contracts, EHS-CCPs offer reliable public funding and supports that have served as stabilizers for providers with decreased enrollment during the coronavirus crisis, helping some programs keep their doors open.

State and local legislation

Some states and localities have passed legislation aimed at improving access to affordable, quality child care for infants and toddlers. In 2018, Washington state established the Child Care Collaborative Task Force (C3TF), which is charged with developing recommendations to build greater access to affordable child care for working families. Among its recommendations, the task force called for limiting what families pay for child care to 7 percent of their income by 2025. This initiative—alongside similar task forces in Oregon and New York—demonstrates the growing interest among states to identify and implement strategies that will create greater access to quality child care for all families.

The Birth-to-Three for All DC Act, passed in July 2018 by the D.C. Council, contains perhaps the most comprehensive state or local actions dedicated to improving infant and toddler child care and well-being. The bill improves subsidies to cover the true cost of providing quality care; introduces a progressive pay scale that ensures no family pays more than 10 percent of its income on child care; boosts pay and professional development for early educators; and strengthens physical, mental, and nutritional health supports for families. While the District of Columbia has not yet fully funded the legislation, the bill serves as a model for other states and cities not only for improving child care access but also promoting affordability, workforce compensation, and infant health.

Improved data collection

States must first quantify the problem in order to understand and target communities most in need. Collecting data on total enrollment or licensed capacity—specifically by age group within the 0-to-5 age range—allows researchers and policymakers to better measure the need for infant and toddler child care. Currently only 19 states and the District of Columbia, which account for less than 40 percent of the U.S. population, collect and publicly report data on child care supply by age.

Colorado developed a model using licensed capacity and enrollment data and results from the Preschool Development Grant Parent Survey, a survey of more than 3,000 parents conducted primarily online by the Colorado Health Institute (CHI), the Colorado Office of Early Childhood, and partners. The survey weighted results by parent age, ethnicity, and region within the state to both estimate existing and needed child care supply by age and understand the shortage specific to infant and toddler child care. The CHI also conducted 19 focus groups with families, providers, and other early childhood stakeholders to better understand child care needs and experiences in communities across the state. This work transpired as part of a comprehensive child care needs assessment, conducted with support from the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five Initiative, which also examined family support programs and disparities by race and geography.

Conclusion

Child care plays a critical economic infrastructure role by enabling parents to work—something made abundantly clear during the ongoing coronavirus crisis as parents struggle to balance work and family responsibilities. State leaders understand that an essential part of their response to the economic crisis onset by the COVID-19 pandemic includes a stable child care industry that provides sufficient access for working families. While the four examples highlighted in this column show the steps states can take to address the shortage of infant and toddler child care, long-term solutions require significant federal investment to reach all communities and prevent further shortages for an industry on the brink of collapse.

MK Falgout is a special assistant for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Steven Jessen-Howard is a former research assistant for Early Childhood Policy at the Center.