Childcare Deserts

“Childcare is a critical piece of our economic infrastructure, just like roads and bridges.”

A childcare desert is an area with limited or no access to quality childcare, and more than half of Americans live in one. While market principles dictate the supply of childcare should rise to meet demand, many of the most important aspects of quality childcare are externalities - risks and benefits that the market cannot respond to. Providing quality resources and staffing ratios is expensive - unlike with older children, each childcare worker should only supervise three infants at a time. Childcare subsidies do exist, but only 1 in 6 eligible families receive them, and they are not adequate to cover high costs of care for infants and toddlers. Even with childcare workers making poverty-level wages, parents cannot afford to make up the difference, nor should they have to. The benefits of well-raised children extend well beyond the household, and the costs of raising children well easily outstrip household budgets. 


The true demand for childcare does not translate into market pressure because childcare is not a private good, despite the fact that United States policy currently treats it as one. We are one of the only developed countries that does not provide a legal right to early childhood education for children between the ages of birth and five.

  • Childcare costs more than college tuition in 28 U.S. states.

  • For a single adult without children, childcare worker wages are only considered livable in 10 states.

  • 86% of primary caregivers have said problems with childcare hurt their efforts or time commitment at work.

  • The lack of childcare in America costs the United States $57 billion each year in lost earnings, productivity and revenue.

  • Single parents spend nearly 40% of their pre-tax income on childcare annually.

  • 1 in 7 American children live in poverty.

The repercussions of this market failure harm American families, and thus, harm us all.

  • 83% of parents with a child under 5 years of age report that finding quality, affordable childcare is a serious problem in their area.

  • American companies lose an estimated ​$12.7 billion each year due to childcare challenges faced by their workforce.

  • Maternal labor force participation is 3% lower in childcare deserts.


The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated the timeline of the childcare crisis we have been facing for decades.


By April 2020, one third of childcare providers had lost their jobs, and rehiring in the industry has since plateaued with only about half of those jobs returned. Roughly half of the already inadequate number of childcare slots in the United States are at risk of permanent loss. When childcare providers are pushed out of the workforce, parents are forced to do the same. Over the past year, nearly 1.5 million mothers have left the workforce. This exacerbates existing inequalities — mothers are leaving the workforce at higher rates than fathers, and declines in labor force participation among Black and Hispanic women are more than double that of white women. 


This follows what we already knew about childcare supply before the pandemic. Fifty one percent of all families live in childcare deserts, but that rate is 60% for Hispanic families. Despite being less likely to have access to childcare themselves, over 40% of childcare workers are women of color, and half of childcare businesses are minority owned. Because childcare centers run on razor thin margins, childcare works wages are so low, and parents are already stretched thin to pay for childcare at existing prices, the market disincentivizes infant and toddler care, particularly in areas where family income is lower and subsidies are not accessible. Childcare is low-wage work and still costs more than low-wage jobs pay.

Lack of access to childcare is a major barrier to class mobility, particularly in the context of federal benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which are only available to parents who work.  Further, even though more than 1 in 5 college students are parents and more than half are parents of children under 5 years old, the majority do not have access to on-campus childcare or even information about the resources available to them as student parents. These parents are disproportionately women and people of color, and due in part to lack of access to childcare, their graduation rates are 30% lower than students who are not parents.

Navigating the childcare market is complex for families even in ideal circumstances. Parents must consider location, schedule, finances, and perhaps most importantly, quality and fit for their child. It is no simpler at the macro level. Ensuring an adequate supply of childcare combines consideration of gender and racial equality, labor rights, business administration, and child welfare. Children, parents, teachers, communities, and schools are more than just numbers in an analysis. They are whole, unique beings with their own needs, desires, and ambitions. As stakeholders, not only do they deserve a seat at the table, we need them in seats in the legislature. Multifaceted problems like this require many perspectives to see in their entirety, and mothers’ perspectives are critical. Because when our legislature does not reflect our population, kitchen table issues stay in the kitchen.