For Many People, the Problem With Day Care Isn’t Cost — It’s Availability

Lindsay Bixler plays with the children in her care in the Kid Zone at the Jim & Heather Gills YMCA in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., while their parents exercise.
Lindsay Bixler plays with the children in her care in the Kid Zone at the Jim & Heather Gills YMCA in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., while their parents exercise. Kid Zone at the Y is a service free to full members. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Affording day care is a challenge many Americans face.

Nearly a third of families spend 20% or more of their income on child care, according to Care.com.

But affordability aside, what do you do when there aren’t any child care options available where you live?

The Center for American Progress recently studied child care availability in 22 states — representing roughly two-thirds of the nation’s population — and found 51% live in day care deserts, or areas with a significant lack or undersupply of licensed child care providers.

Who Are Most Affected by Day Care Deserts?

Of the 22 states studied, California and New York had the highest percentage of people living in a child care desert — 62% and 61%, respectively. Illinois (59%), Pennsylvania (59%) and Missouri (55%) rounded out the top five.

Those living in low-income, rural communities were found to be impacted the most by day care deserts.

A higher percentage of American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic and Latino families were found to live in communities without enough child care options compared to other races and ethnic groups.

How Does Your Neighborhood Measure Up?

The Center for American Progress has an interactive map that shows just how much your location is impacted by this issue.

For example, I live in the state of Florida, where 38% of the population lives without adequate child care availability. The good news is that much of my city, St. Petersburg, is not considered a day care desert.

Yet, the interactive map allows users to go a step further than city level. You can plug in your address to get information based on your individual census tract.

The bad news? The census tract where I live is considered a child care desert. There are only two licensed child care providers (able to care for a maximum of 76 kids) in an area where there are about 256 children under the age of 5.

What Can You Do If You Live in a Day Care Desert?

Families stuck in day care deserts don’t always have the most ideal options to help their situations. Some resort to having one partner leave the workforce to be a stay-at-home parent, while others try to alternate their schedules so one parent is always home to provide care.

Some parents, like myself, rely on low- or no-cost care from a relative or friend. For other parents, hiring a nanny or babysitter is their solution to dealing with a day care desert.

There are also parents who reserve day care spots for their kids while they’re still in the womb, those who commute to day care centers outside of their neighborhoods and families who send their tots to unlicensed child care providers.

The authors of the Center for American Progress study say government policies should be put in place to mitigate the widespread problem of inaccessible child care.

“First, the federal government must make a substantial and sustained investment that helps low-income and middle-class working families afford child care,” the study states. “Until families have the resources to afford child care, the market will be driven by parents’ ability to pay, leaving communities of color and those living in rural areas behind.”

Solving America’s day care woes isn’t going to be an easy, overnight solution, but hopefully something will be done to fix the unavailability — and unaffordability — of quality child care for so many across the nation.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She is the mother of one.