The Third Pillar of Care: Availability

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Our Measure of Availability

Lowering the cost and increasing the quality of care only gets us part of the way to a better system. The other huge piece of the puzzle is availability—making sure there are enough accessible, appropriate spaces for every child who needs care. Even if appropriate spots are theoretically available, families must be able to reasonably access them—meaning care must be accessible by available transportation and during the times it is needed for the ages of the children who need it. After all, improving quality and reducing cost can only have an impact on families who are able to find and access care in the first place.

The Care Index found that the availability of care—the proportion of the number of caregivers to the number of children under age five who may need care—is highest in six states, mainly in the Northeast: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Jersey. Availability of child care is also high in Washington, D.C. Seven states with the lowest availability are the largely western and more rural states of Wyoming, South Dakota, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Improving quality and reducing cost can only have an impact on families who are able to find and access care in the first place.

But care is not always most available in the states where families have the most need. For instance, South Dakota has the highest share of families with children under 18 where all parents work—82 percent. Yet the Care Index found it has among the lowest availability of care, suggesting families are relying on informal networks of unpaid care, or the gray market of paid care, either by choice or by necessity.

The Index found that Utah, too, has low levels of available care. That may not be surprising as Utah is also the state with the lowest share of families with children under 18 where all parents work. Even so, in a majority of Utah families with children, 63 percent, all parents are working.

Ensuring that care is available to all is crucial to building a strong care system. But part of the problem is that very little data exists on availability. Earlier studies have found that child care centers are least available in nonmetropolitan and poor communities, and family home care most readily available in nonmetropolitan, mixed-income areas. But without more detailed, precise information, it’s difficult to know how to design policies that will address the places and populations most in need.

Child Care Availability Index

We measured states according to the population of in-home and in-center child care professionals, as a proportion of the number of children under 5 in each state. A state that measures 100 in this index has the same availability as the average for the United States; each 15 points represents one standard deviation from the mean, so 115 is one standard deviation higher availability than average for the United States.

The Ideal Measure of Availability

In the Care Index, we measured availability for each state as a simple ratio of the number of child care providers (both individually employed and employed by child care centers) to the number of children under the age of five. (More detailed information can be found in our methodology.) But this method has its limits. Due to limited data, our Index can look only at an aggregate measure of coverage: the total number of caregivers relative to the total number of children. A more precise availability measure, on the other hand, would look at how well services match families’ needs across three dimensions: geography, time, and type of care.

The first of these dimensions, geography, means that care must be nearby: If child care is not readily accessible to parents, it is, of course, useless to them. This is a particularly relevant issue in rural areas, where child care is least likely to be nearby and public transportation systems may be insufficient or unavailable.

Second, care must be available during the time—time of day and time of the year—that families need it. Some parents work long or irregular hours or shifts, or work weekends or evenings, and may need child care outside of traditional 9-to-5 business hours and on short notice, as with just-in-time scheduling. Unfortunately, these services are often difficult to find. Many parents also struggle to find care during the summer.

Third, care must be age-appropriate. An abundance of preschools doesn’t help a family seeking care for their 6-month-old infant, for example. Age-appropriate care is essential for child development and school readiness.

Availability in the Research

While these three dimensions make an ideal measure of availability, they can be very difficult to capture in practice. Relatively few studies exist on availability, compared to the high volume of data collection and research on quality and cost.

One effort, ChildCare Map’s report on Philadelphia, looks at population age breakdowns, transportation needs and available routes, and quality ratings of providers to map overall care availability in the region. Likewise, the 2016 National Survey of Early Childcare & Education looks at the proportions of child care providers in different locations who have specific characteristics, such as being able to provide infant care, or being able to care for children for more than 30 hours weekly. However, it does not look at the total number of providers or the number of children needing care. A report from Georgia State University examines availability in several rural Georgia counties by location, though not by age or time frame.

More and better data is needed so that policymakers can address child care availability with precision and accuracy.

While these studies are important steps in the right direction, they still do not fully capture the number and characteristics of child care slots available relative to the children who need them nationwide. More and better data is needed so that policymakers can address child care availability with precision and accuracy. If better data existed, government and businesses might be able to, for instance, target investments in better public transportation infrastructure, or use zoning ordinances or redevelopment tax funds to incentivize more providers to build facilities in particular areas.