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.