Last fall, a report by the Center for American Progress received significant media attention and raised awareness of an important concept regarding equity for U.S. children: the child care desert. A child care desert refers to an area with no or limited availability of child care centers for young children. The report sparked public conversation about the issue of geographic access to child care. Yet supply of child care centers and geographic location are just two of many elements in the complex issue of access to early care and education.
To address problems with access to child care, those working on the issue need a common definition of access. Providing access isn’t as simple as ensuring that every child has a spot. It’s an issue with multiple dimensions and barriers to consider.
Child Trends’ recent report on child care access is a tool researchers and policymakers can use to identify and assess the multiple dimensions of access. The report includes a definition of access taking families into account: access to early care and education (ECE) is “when parents, with reasonable effort and affordability, can enroll their child in an arrangement that supports the child’s development and meets the parents’ needs.”
A family-based perspective addresses four dimensions of ECE access:
The Access Guidebook provides a detailed approach to measuring the indicators of access, including examples of data sources and research questions. This data is necessary to identify and address child care shortages and address other issues. For example, researchers and policymakers can focus on immigrant families by examining how many programs at each quality level offer child care services in a language other than English. They can focus on low-income families by examining what percentage of ECE programs that are eligible to receive subsidies serve at least one subsidy-receiving child.
Access to child care is a complex issue and its definition is being refined. However, recent research has improved our understanding of this issue, enabling researchers and policymakers to better measure and address barriers to access to high-quality care for the children and families who need it most.