Lily Casura, MSW
Mar 31, 2018 · 11 min read

What’s a Child Care Desert? And Why It Should Matter if You’re Living in One

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Sitting in a grad school class one evening at the start of a new semester, my friend Bianca — herself a single mother — and I noticed one of our classmates at the other end of our row had brought all three of her children to class with her that night. Apparently our classmate either hadn’t been able to — or couldn’t afford to — make other plans, so there they all were, one adult studying for her master’s degree, plus three boys of varying ages from toddler through school-age playing quietly and unobtrusively nearby. An impressive feat, maybe, but not exactly a sustainable one — for the mother, for her children, even for the teacher and the rest of the class, if it were to happen on a regular basis.

But such is the dilemma of finding accessible and affordable child care for many parents across America — including and especially low-income, single parents and millennials, three groups that the nonprofit advocacy group, Child Care Aware of America, identified in its 2017 State Fact Sheets as being those most in need. In fact, Child Care Aware of America has taken to calling these areas of limited access to quality child care “Child Care Deserts” — modeling the terminology after the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s concept of “Food Deserts.”

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(Food deserts are those barren places, often in low-income neighborhoods and in stretches of rural America, where no options exist for fresh, healthy food anywhere for miles around. Of course, there’s also similarity and overlap in where these two types of ‘deserts’ are located — frequently in areas of high poverty.)

Maybe the “childcare desert” terminology won’t take off — but it’s certainly one good way of illustrating how devoid of resources a particular area might be, and how far afield one has to go to have access to services.

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Regarding the spectrum of child care resources by state, here’s what it looks like on a national basis (above). While the U.S. Census Bureau hasn’t updated this report recently, the map still illustrates the discrepancy in how widely child care is available. To provide some context, there are many more child care centers available today than, say, 20 years ago. But according to the Census Bureau, nine out of 10 of these child care businesses are actually “non-employer child care businesses,” such as family day care homes which are less expensive to set up, and may go in and out of business according to multiple factors. If we look at the map above, it’s basically measuring the number of facilities per 1,000 children under the age of five. Again according to the Census Bureau, the ratio of these child care businesses per 1,000 children under five more than doubled in the decade between 1987 and 1997. But there’s still a wide discrepancy from high to low in terms of that ratio: North Dakota surprising leads the way at 80 establishments per 1,000 children; and child care was less available in the South and parts of the West, where it could dip as low as 17 per 1,000 for Nevada. (Arizona, at 22 per 1,000 and Utah, at 23 per 1,000 also performed less strongly.)

Takeaway: Finding out the measurement for your local area could be important.

The availability of high quality, affordable child care isn’t talked about enough — despite its importance to parents and employers. “It’s the number one reason for tardy employees and absenteeism,” according to a recent article in Fast Company magazine. “On a national level, the cost of absenteeism of working parents costs employers millions of dollars a year in lost productivity,” according to Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, in their report, “The Business Case for On-Site Child Care.” They also add:

“Child care issues are the most common family issue in the workplace, frequently responsible for absenteeism in the form of entire missed days of work or even just partial day absences. And the absence of affordable, high-quality child care continues to be the reason many women drop out of the workforce.”

(Although it isn’t mentioned there, it’s also a major issue in why student parents drop out of school or essentially fail to finish.)

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There’s almost universal agreement on the difficulty of finding good, affordable child care. A Pew report from 2015 found that “most parents, regardless of income” agreed it was hard to find, especially for those with the lowest family incomes. Two years later, they acknowledged that:

“Child care is essential for many American families, but most parents say they have difficulty finding affordable, high-quality care in their community, with the sentiment cutting across race, income and educational background.” (The Pew Charitable Trust, 2017.)

The new normal

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With economic necessity driving more and more women into the labor force, even as parents of young children, the chance to be a stay-at-home mother and still survive financially appears to be increasingly rare.

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Bianca Ramirez, LMSW, shown advocating for student parent access to affordable child care near the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus. Ramirez, a single mother of a special needs child, began her advocacy efforts while still a graduate student. Photo by Lily Casura.

Student parents, like Bianca (above) and our classmate with her three children at her side, face additional challenges. For low-income parents in particular, finding and securing stable and affordable child care can be essential:

“Low-income populations require custom-built supports, as the most at-risk population. Low wages and unstable sources of income, along with the non-traditional and changeable work hours of swing shift employment create special challenges to finding quality child care.” (Child Care Aware of America, 2017 Fact Sheet.)


“For low income parents, access to reliable child care is important for long-term job retention. Families that, due to cost concerns, use informal child care arrangements (e.g., where family members serve as child care providers) or string together multiple care arrangements will more likely experience child care-related work disruptions, recent research shows. Low-wage workers who miss work or arrive late because of child care mishaps are more likely to be fired from their jobs. Child care subsidies can provide consistent access to stable child care so that parents can work dependably.” (The Center on Policy and Budget Priorities, 2013.)

In the most recent figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau on “Who’s Minding the Kids,” the state of child care in America (2011), almost two-thirds (61 percent) of the nation’s 20.4 million children under the age of 5 were in some sort of regular childcare arrangement. Of this group, children were more likely to be cared for by a relative (42 percent) than by a non-relative, such as a child care provider (33 percent), but a portion were juggled between multiple arrangements (12 percent) and a large group (39 percent) had no regular child care arrangement.

According to the same report, about one-quarter of children were cared for in organized facilities, with day care centers (13 percent) being more popular than nursery or pre-schools (6 percent). For working mothers, relatives often performed child care functions, including grandparents (32 percent) and fathers (29 percent), often in a split-shift arrangement. For the small percent of children (3 percent) who lived only with their fathers, grandparents were often an important source of child care.

Juggling multiple child care arrangements was more common among working mothers (27 percent) than mothers not in the labor force (8 percent). Multiple arrangements for child care are common among almost all the working parents I know in graduate school, who track an elaborate schedule of drop-offs and pick-ups for each day of the week, in addition to the demands of work and school.

Access to child care

The way we discuss child care typically falls into three main areas: cost (which is relatively straightforward), quality (which can be assessed in various ways) and availability, which really comes down to, does a geographical area’s supply meet its demand? And is the supply somehow skewed in such a way that it’s less available to those who perhaps need it most?

“Availability is the degree to which a family has ready access to needed child care: this might include not only convenient geographical location but also the availability of slots for the right age range and the right time of day. . . . Care may be considered unavailable if it is physically present but too low in quality or too high in cost to be used.” (Availability of Child Care in the United States: A Description and Analysis of Data Sources, 2001.)

If you’re familiar with our format from previous articles in our Unpacking Poverty series, you know that we start with a broad overview of the problem and then hone in one geographical area — San Antonio, the nation’s seventh largest city — to show what this looks like on a local level. We’ve done the mapping of all sorts of population characteristics and made that available on the Web; it’s possible you could do the same for your community and broaden or deepen the conversation locally in your area.

Heatmaps display (L-R) percentages of population below poverty, children below poverty, and single mothers as heads of households below poverty, all by ZIP Code, in San Antonio, Texas. Maps by Lily Casura.

In San Antonio, map after map shows the same spatial distribution of high-poverty, high-hardship areas. Look for the slightly slanted “T” shape, or T-shape with an interrupted cross bar, that emerges in the lower half of each of the maps here (percent below poverty, children below poverty, and single mothers below poverty). The spatial distribution of the “Hardship Index” for the city, written about here, makes this even more obvious.

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But when availability of licensed child care facilities is mapped, the distribution looks quite different. Areas of child care over-supply are located to the north of the city, where demand is the lowest, and gaps emerge throughout west, east and south. This was observed by the state demographer in the 2015 Community Needs Assessment for the county; and the same distribution is apparent today, despite an increase in licensed child care facilities.

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Licensed child care centers by capacity (for the ZIP Code) in Bexar County, using 2018 Texas state data. Tableau map by Lily Casura. The full set of child care maps is located here.

And here’s what that looks like three years later — more or less the same distribution, despite more centers theoretically creating more capacity (they’re still located in the same areas, away from highest need.)

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(L to R). Where children pass their third grade readings tests, a map by educational nonprofit organization P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, and percentage of the population with a high school diploma or a GED, map by Lily Casura, using recent Census data.

One disturbing implication is how well this distribution of child care availability seems to track with the two maps above — where third graders pass their reading tests and where higher levels of educational attainment, measured here as percent graduating from high school or achieving a GED, are located.

Clockwise from left: Number of licensed child care centers in Bexar County by ZIP Code, centers that provide services for special needs children, and those that offer evening hours, important to student parents and shift workers. Tableau maps by Lily Casura, using Texas state data from 2018.

Here’s the current distribution of licensed child care centers, by ZIP Code, above. Notice how the same T-shape associated with high hardship is fairly barren for resources, a distribution that’s even more pronounced when it comes to centers that serve special needs children or which offer evening hours (crucial to students like Bianca and our classmate with her three children in class mentioned earlier).

(You can find the whole interactive set of maps about child care availability in Bexar County here.)

In addition to being in short supply, quality child care can also be prohibitively expensive.

“. . .Child care for many families makes up the largest household expense, exceeding even housing, transportation, and college tuition, and affecting family income and expenditures. Lack of access to affordable care can drive parents, particularly mothers, to drop out of the labor force in a way that hinders long-term earnings potential, take on unsustainable debt, make other budgeting decisions that leave them worse off, or compromise on the quality of care their children receive.” (“How the Federal Government Helps Families Meet Child Care Needs,” from the Pew Charitable Trust, 2017.)


“Across all 50 states, the cost of center-based infant care averaged more than 40 percent of the median income for single mothers, 33 percent higher than the federally recommended cost.” (“Checking In: A Snapshot of the Child Care Landscape,” Child Care Aware of America, 2017.)

Yet despite such widespread need:

Due to insufficient funding, only about one in six low-income children eligible for child care assistance under federal rules receives it.” (The Center on Policy and Budget Priorities, 2013.)

The national average for at-home care is $28,354 a year, and in-center care is $8,589 per year, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. The expense is so high that the monthly cost of child care for two-children households exceeds the cost of rent in most of the country, according to the Fast Company article.

A sample “State Fact Sheet” available from Child Care Aware of America.

At the Texas Institute for Family & Child Well-Being, part of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers have surveyed costs for child care across the state of Texas. What they have established is essentially the “market rate” for child care by the hour in each of 28 local workforce development areas.

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Market rates for child care at licensed and registered facilities in the San Antonio, Texas area (Alamo workforce). Chart by the Texas Institute for Family & Child Wellbeing, part of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.

For the region where San Antonio is located, where approximately 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, the average cost of a full day of child care ranges from $23.17 in a registered child care home to $27.52 in a licensed child care center. If these costs seem fairly high, it’s because they are — and not because child care workers themselves are profiting particularly from the arrangement. (As you can see from the Texas fact sheet, above, the average annual salary of a child care worker in Texas is $20,700 — not far above poverty themselves, and below the national average.)

In fact, child care is so expensive that “many child care workers cannot afford to enroll their own children,” according to Child Care Aware of America.

The way forward

There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement about the importance of high-quality, affordable child care — or its importance to optimal child development and reducing parental stress, whether they’re employees, or students completing their education, or both. What’s been more unclear is who has the best model for providing it to those who need it most, and also how to make more resources available in areas that seem to lack them. For those answers, it’s not clear where we need to look — is it outside the U.S., or are certain states doing it well within the U.S.? It’s also not apparent whether enough people who aren’t parents themselves realize the importance of this issue, and the long-term implications of not providing support to parents who are significantly stressed by navigating, and paying for, this essential resource.

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NOTE: This article is part of an ongoing series on “unpacking poverty.” For a full list of articles and links to the original content, click here.

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