Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It’s not just a matter of affordability. It’ll take an “infrastructure investment,” a new report claims.  

In April, Creative Learning Preschool in the center of downtown Madison, Wisconsin, launched an ambitious campaign: to raise half a million dollars to buy the building they had operated out of for 19 years. As rents continue to spike in Madison, public day cares have struggled to stay in place. The only other nonprofit child care option for downtown parents, Red Caboose, announced a move to the east side of the city in September.

If Creative Learning were forced out, “there would be nobody here and people would have to commute to take their children to day care,” Mary Flanner, Creative Learning’s executive director, told WISC-TV Madison.

Through local donations, Creative Learning hit its funding goal in late September and closed on the purchase of the building. But the school can only accommodate 150 children, and there’s always a waitlist, WISC-TV reports.

Downtown Madison is a child care desert, defined in a new report from the Center for American Progress as a zip code with at least 30 children under the age of 5, where the number of kids is at least three times greater than the number of available spaces in child care centers. Due to data availability constraints, the report only analyzes nearly 7,000 zip codes in eight states—Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia (view the interactive here). However, the report notes that the trends observed across these states are generally illustrative of the state of child care across the U.S., where nearly half of all zip codes are child care deserts.

Access to child care, says the report author Rasheed Malik, is often framed in financial terms: at nearly $18,000 per year, the average cost of care amounts to around 29 percent of the median household income. While high costs deter many families from seeking out day care centers, space constraints—like those in downtown Madison—also close off access to child care, Malik says. In many areas, he adds, even people who are able to pay may have a hard time finding spaces for their children.

With 65 percent of kids under age 5 living with working parents—and 42 percent of those families living in child care deserts—the authors call for a broader national policy approach.

(The Center For American Progress)

The CAP report broke down zip codes by poverty rate, density, and demographic makeup. Around 55 percent of kids in rural areas live in child care deserts, followed by 49 percent of urban kids. Malik notes that urban neighborhoods with the highest youth populations are the most undersupplied with child care facilities. These neighborhoods are also often moderate-poverty areas like downtown Madison, where 10 to 20 percent of families live below the poverty line. High-poverty areas, Malik adds, are the least likely to report child care deserts.

While this may seem counterintuitive, Katie Hamm, the co-author on the report, links the lower incidences of child care deserts in extreme poverty areas with a greater prevalence of federally funded programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, which target high-need communities. “The conversation around Head Start is usually: does it work?” Hamm says. “But this study calls into question whether kids in these higher-poverty areas would have anything if it weren’t for Head Start.”

However, Malik adds that these federal child care programs are underfunded and oversubscribed. In 2014, only 43 percent of eligible children were served by Head Start; Early Head Start (for children under age 3) reached only 4 percent of eligible kids. Especially in dense cities, Malik says, poverty rates may not be high enough to attract enough federal funding, but nor are incomes necessarily high enough for families to afford private child care options. This dynamic increases demand for public child care centers, which often struggle to source the financial resources to keep their doors open.  

To close these gaps, CAP proposes what the authors call a national “infrastructure investment” in child care. While CAP proposes a tax credit of up to $14,000 for families to defray the cost, that’s not enough, Hamm says. In the report, the authors draw a parallel to other types of federal spending:

“Just as policymakers recognize the need for long-overdue infrastructure investment in our roads, bridges, and public buildings, they also must allocate public resources toward improving the infrastructure necessary for high-quality child care and early childhood education.”

The federal government already allocates $5 billion each year in financial assistance to low-income families. Since the proposed tax credit would go towards child care, CAP wants to see existing federal money funneled into facilities, either through the construction of new centers, or the conversion of underutilized schools or community spaces into day cares.

In the U.S., “child care has been on the back burner for a long time,” Hamm says. “There’s been a kind of chilling effect on the policy conversation, because people saw it as a family responsibility: if you have kids, you have to find a way to take care of them.” Now, Hamm says, there’s a shift happening. As more mothers participate in the labor force, “there’s a growing awareness that this is not a luxury anymore,” Hamm says. “It’s a public good, and needs to be treated as such.”

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