A new study finds that the problem of child-care scarcity is largely due to a lack of care for infants and young toddlers rather than for children from 3-5.
The study by the Center for American Progress, which was released earlier this week, examined available child care in nine states and the District of Columbia and found that it was difficult for families to find licensed child care for the youngest children.
The researchers wanted to take a closer look at what the center calls “child-care deserts,” or areas “where there are three or more children for every licensed child-care slot.”
They analyzed the availability of licensed child care by county in Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Vermont. They also studied the situation in the District of Columbia by ward.
They noted that in these areas there are more than five infants and toddlers for every licensed child-care slot, which is more than three times the ratio for children from 3 to 5.
“It really comes down to the economics of child care,” said Simon Workman, a co-author of the study and the associate director of early-childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.
Workman adds that there’s no economic incentive to open up a center that caters to infants and young toddlers because class sizes have to be small, and tuition and subsidies won’t come close to covering the operating costs.
“If you’ve got eight infants in a classroom with two teachers, you’ve only got revenue from eight infants covering the costs of those two teachers compared to a preschool classroom where maybe you’ve got 20 children covering the costs of two teachers,” said Workman.
While this was a problem everywhere the researchers studied, it was worse in rural areas and in low-income communities.
The researchers used Benton County, Miss., to illustrate this problem. In that rural county, which sits on the Tennessee border, 97 percent of young children have a working parent, but there is not a single licensed child-care provider that accepts infants and toddlers.
In areas designated by the U.S. Census as completely rural, there are nine infants and toddlers for every child-care slot available.
So where does this leave parents?
The researchers point out in some cases parents rely on friends and family to care for their children or take advantage of unlicensed child care. Another common option is for one parent, usually the mother, to drop out of the workforce for a time to care for the children, but that comes with a hefty economic penalty.
“That has a significant impact on family economic security and an impact that lasts way beyond the few years that a mother might take off,” said Workman.
The study provides the example of a 28-year-old woman who takes off three years to care for a child. If she makes the median wage for her age group, the researchers note that she would lose nearly $350,000 over the course of her lifetime in lost wages and retirement benefits.
The researchers call on states to improve data collection on child care. They mention that the nine states included in this study were chosen because they collect data on available child care by age group and make that information available to the public.
They also made several other suggestions to help families contending with a lack of child care such as states offering tax incentives to encourage providers to locate in areas where the need is greatest and providing public funds to support care for infants and toddlers.
The authors also argue that legislators should think beyond preschool. They praise states for work to help make sure 4-year-olds can attend preschool, but ask lawmakers to consider younger children saying that “waiting until preschool to support early-learning programs misses the opportunity to help children during the most important years of their development.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.