When child care simply isn’t there: An analysis of extreme subsidized child care deserts

Published: 06.26.2020 Updated: 06.29.2020

Neighborhood child care centers can make a world of difference for families juggling commutes, multiple jobs, public school schedules and other responsibilities. Child care subsidies are a way to level the playing field in accessing that child care, by lowering the cost of care for low-income working families. However, many subsidy-eligible children face a limited supply of subsidized providers close to home.

In a 2018 case study of Massachusetts local subsidized child care markets, diversitydatakids.org research found that child care supply is limited for low-income families eligible for subsidies. Even worse, black and Hispanic children are four times as likely as white children to live in “extreme subsidized child care deserts” — neighborhoods with a high need for affordable child care but very limited supply of subsidized care providers, surrounded by other neighborhoods with the same unbalanced supply.

Exploring the prevalence of subsidized child care deserts

With the growing understanding that child care is hard to secure for so many working families, the concept of “child care deserts” has become an area of focus for policymakers and researchers. The term “child care desert” has been coined to describe local areas with an insufficient supply of child care providers. In the same way we think about “food deserts” as a barrier to equitable access to healthy food options, we can think about areas with limited child care access as a barrier to equitable learning opportunities for children and working opportunities for their families. Some research indicates that child care deserts are shockingly common: a 2018 report from the Center of American Progress showed that 51% of Americans live in neighborhoods that are classified as child care deserts. 

However, the commonly used definition of child care deserts, while useful, obscures issues of equity and access. For example, there are different levels of limited supply: we shouldn’t equate an area with 1 care provider for 50 young children to an area with 1 care provider for 500 young children. A community’s circumstances are also different depending on its surrounding neighborhoods: if a neighborhood qualifies as a child care desert but borders other neighborhoods with more abundant supply, then those families will have more child care options than families whose neighborhood is surrounded by neighboring areas with a similarly limited supply. These families are more physically isolated from child care options.

In our case study we use the traditional measure of child care deserts to explore the prevalence of subsidized child care deserts and then apply the “extreme child care deserts” approach in Massachusetts in relation to where children live. Because we know that, due to residential segregation, children of different racial/ethnic backgrounds tend to live in different neighborhoods, we conduct our analysis by child race/ethnicity to explore whether low-income black and Hispanic children are more likely than low-income white children to live in neighborhoods with limited access to subsidized child care.

In the same way we think about “food deserts” as a barrier to equitable access to healthy food options, we can think about areas with limited child care access as a barrier to equitable learning opportunities for children and working opportunities for their families.

In Massachusetts, subsidized child care deserts are pervasive, and they affect all children

We found that out of roughly 1,000 neighborhoods statewide with subsidy-eligible children, over one third (349) were classified as subsidized care deserts, and half of subsidy-eligible children in Massachusetts live in a subsidized child care desert. Subsidized child care deserts are spread out mostly evenly across the state, and are found in most large urban hubs and in lower density areas. Notably, there are relatively few child care deserts in the City of Boston, which has the highest concentration of low-income children eligible for subsidies.

Children from different racial/ethnic groups are roughly equally likely to live in subsidized child care deserts. Forty nine percent of white, 52% of black, and 55% Hispanic subsidy-eligible children live in subsidized child care deserts.

Extreme subsidized child care deserts affect large numbers of children, and disproportionately affect Hispanic and black children  

We next explored the prevalence of “extreme subsidized child care deserts”—neighborhoods that have extreme child care shortages compared with other neighborhoods across the state, and that are also surrounded by other neighborhoods with extreme shortages—and their location in relation to where children live. Extreme subsidized care deserts can have a more severe impact on families because they have few child care options both within their neighborhood and in the surrounding neighborhoods, and the extent of shortages are extreme in magnitude, leaving hundreds of low-income children in a neighborhood isolated from subsidized child care.

Fifty-nine extreme child care deserts were identified in Massachusetts and these neighborhoods are home to thousands of vulnerable low-income children. Overall, nearly 1 in 5 subsidy-eligible children live in extreme subsidized child care deserts, which are largely clustered around urban areas across the state, where concentrations of eligible children are greatest.2 

Extreme subsidized child care deserts disparately impact Hispanic and black children. Twenty-four percent of black and 28% of Hispanic subsidy-eligible children live in extreme subsidized child care deserts, compared with only 6% of white subsidy-eligible children. This means that Hispanic and black children are 4 to 5 times more likely than white children with similar family incomes to face these extreme local conditions. These racial/ethnic differences likely decrease access to care, and they could translate into inequities in quality early childhood education experiences. What’s more, when low-income parents can’t access nearby subsidized care, it’s harder for them to work and provide for their families.

The federal subsidy system is a key way that low-income families can access the child care market. The fact that so many families may face constrained affordable care options in their neighborhoods suggests that more investment is needed to ensure families can equitably access child care.

Erin Hardy
Erin Hardy
Early Childhood Research Director
Pamela Joshi
Pamela Joshi
Policy Research Director
Dolores Acevedo Garcia
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Director, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy