The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 30, 2012

Child care demand outstrips supply

August 30, 2012

The third in this week's four-part MetroTrends series about the struggle to locate, access, and afford high-quality child care. Don't miss previous blogs that introduce the child care project and describe the challenges to understanding child care options. Tomorrow: making child care affordable and accessible

The waiting lists are just horrible….we don’t have many options.” – Fern and Fred, a young couple living in Seattle.

At a conference in late June, I ate lunch with two colleagues who were deep in discussions about their child care arrangements. One woman, who I thought was joking, told me she put her name on waiting lists at half a dozen child care centers around the city when she was only 10 weeks pregnant. “Those child care centers may have found out I was pregnant before my mother did,” she laughed.

Why put yourself on a waiting list one year before you need to use the service? By my rough assessment, this educated colleague and her husband didn’t expect to struggle with locating their care options or even affording care (as many new parents do), but rather they anticipated struggling with the low supply of available infant care in their area. And they were right: her daughter only made it off of one of those waiting lists when she was 10 months old.

Although arranging child care is a problem for many families, low-income families face an even steeper challenge to obtain a coveted slot. What are these low-income parents dealing with?

  • Nontraditional work hours and/or shifting work schedules. They need providers who will take children earlier in the day, keep them later into the evening, and/or accommodate fluctuating work hours.
  • Transportation challenges. Many low-income parents lack a personal vehicle and rely on public transportation to travel to and from home, child care, and work.
  • And, of course, a lack of resources. Child care is one of the greatest household expenses and few families qualify for child care assistance (which we’ll discuss in our next blog).

Finding a provider who will accept siblings, especially of different ages, who speaks the family’s language, and/or who is qualified to care for a special needs child further constrains families’ already limited options.

So what can we do to increase the supply of this key work support? Here are a few strategies:

  1. Conduct a community-needs assessment to identify low-income neighborhoods where the supply doesn’t meet the demand. Target resources to build the supply of formal child care in areas with shortages.
  2. Incentivize licensed providers to encourage them to stay in the system, achieve high-quality standards, and accommodate low-income parents with non-standard work schedules.
  3. Integrate local early childhood resources from Head Start, state prekindergarten, and the child care subsidy program to provide seamless, extended-day options in areas most in need.

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