Providing access to child care means more than providing enough slots

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:

  1. Reasonable effort (i.e., the level of effort a family needs to exert to learn about and enroll in ECE): This dimension includes measurable indicators such as geographical location, supply of ECE programs, and availability of information about ECE programs.
  2. Affordability: This refers to indicators such as parents’ financial contribution, subsidies and scholarships, advertised price (i.e., the price families are told they will need to pay, before considering financial supports such as subsidies), and programs’ expenses for providing ECE.
  3. Supporting the child’s development: This dimension includes indicators such as quality designations (e.g., state QRIS ratings), specialized services, language of instruction, and stability of ECE.
  4. Meeting the parents’ needs: This includes parents’ preferred type of program, availability of transportation, and hours of operation.

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.