Lower income households may be particularly impacted by child care shortages
Early childhood education settings are often among children’s first communities. Research shows that high-quality child care can have long-term benefits for children, including increased cognitive abilities, improved language development and better relationships with peers. Beyond the underlying benefits, child care is a necessity for most parents because many families require two incomes to meet living expenses; and single parents often do not have the capacity to raise their children and have a full-time job.
In a 2018 analysis, Reinvestment Fund revealed that residents of Atlanta’s Metro areas with high concentrations of families in poverty, lower-income areas, and areas with higher concentrations of Latinx households were disproportionately impacted by child care shortages. Four years later, overall shortages in care remain and continue to disproportionately impact lower-income families and people of color.
Recently, Reinvestment Fund released its latest Childcare Access in Metro Atlanta (CAMA) report to help guide supply building and quality improvement interventions. While there is no single source of data that accurately describes the supply of full-time child care across the five-county region (Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties), the analysis used multiple data sources, both local and national, to present the most comprehensive picture of supply, including: state licensing data, accrediting agency databases, and Atlanta-area extracts from national business listings.
According to the U.S. Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation, child care access has long been studied as the number of child care slots relative to the number of children living in an area – a measurement that has yielded estimates of the number of children living in “child care deserts.” This understanding of child care access is a foundational first step to identifying areas where families may not have access to care; however, it is a narrow definition of access, as it does not account for the lived experiences of families, including their needs, preferences, and qualifications for various types of child care and how those factors intersect with the characteristics of care in their immediate geographic area.
Access is often measured in terms of supply (i.e., capacity) of licensed child care and early education (CCEE) centers and family child care (FCC) homes. Sometimes it is measured by counting the number of families who use different types of CCEE. These metrics assume that a large supply of or high use of CCEE means it is accessible to families. Recent research shows that these types of calculations overestimate families’ access to CCEE because they do not account for what families search for, prefer, and need.
As the largest city in the region, Atlanta is the location of many of the region’s child care programs. The city is home to 11% of the region’s children under five and contains 15% of the region’s child care capacity. Still, many children in Atlanta live in neighborhoods without sufficient child care access.
The CAMA report determined that across the region, there is a significant gap between the number of children and the capacity in full-time child care. In 2022, there are approximately 259,000 child care aged children in the region, but a capacity of only 174,500, leaving a shortage of 84,500.
In other words, the existing level of child care supply leaves roughly one-third of the region’s demand potentially unmet.
The CAMA report calculated three types of supply: Total Supply, which represents all full-time providers in the region (both regulated and unregulated programs); Regulated Supply, which represents state-licensed providers and providers that are specifically exempt from state licensing requirements; and Quality Rated Supply, which estimates the capacity among providers that participate in the state’s Quality Rated program.
Of course, not all families use or want out-of-home child care. Supplying one space in child care for every child may not be an ideal policy outcome since families have various reasons for choosing to use or not use child care. Estimates of shortage in the CAMA report are based on the idea that, while child care is not a perfectly efficient market, providers generally have some information about market demand and make decisions about where to locate to meet demand. Using this information, the CAMA report describes a relative shortage measure that identifies areas where, given the existing level of demand, we would expect to see more supply than is currently available.
Understanding the location of child care supply and Quality Rated programs is just one of the important inputs policymakers and stakeholders should consider when designing programs to address access to child care. To that end, the report also includes an analysis looking at how child care shortages impact families at different income levels and how shortages impact areas that employ lower-income workers. As in 2018, the 2022 analysis revealed that residents of areas with high concentrations of families in poverty, lower-income areas, and areas with higher concentrations of Hispanic households are disproportionately impacted by child care shortages.
The largest number of children living in areas with large child care shortages were in Fulton County, where nearly 40% of children ages five and younger were living in block groups classified as having larger or much larger than expected shortages of Quality Rated supply. By contrast, Clayton County had no children living in areas with larger than expected shortages.
According to Reinvestment Fund’s 2022 analysis, roughly 17,200 children ages five and younger lived-in areas with average or above average shortages of child care. Lower income households, without access to alternative child care options may be particularly impacted by child care shortages. Notwithstanding the expansion of Quality Rated participation, overall shortages in care remain and continue to disproportionately impact lower-income families and people of color.
To help public officials, funders, and advocates focus on the most critical shortage locations, Reinvestment Fund also examined the intersection of childcare shortages with other important socioeconomic factors, like poverty rates, family income, and race/ethnicity.
All children have the right to equitable learning opportunities that help them achieve their full potential as engaged learners and valued members of society. This is a critical time for early child care centers—it is critical that policymakers, advocates, and all stakeholders are armed with the information needed to design a more equitable system, one that provides all families and children access to quality child care, whatever a family’s specific needs may be.
Ultimately, when our children thrive, our cities and state will thrive. When we are thriving, we can imagine—and expect—better for our future.
Learn more about our work to support Early Childhood Education.
Originally published in the Saporta Report, November 7, 2022