The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the national child care crisis, and in DC, the total supply of child care dropped. Though the city’s child care supply has since bounced back to—and in some cases exceeds—prepandemic levels, recovery hasn’t been even across child care providers, facility locations, and other characteristics. As a result, some families may not be able to access the child care best suited to their needs.
In new research, we studied the pandemic’s effects on the supply of DC child care centers and homes between fall 2019 and fall 2022. We found that, as of September 2022, the numbers of centers and center-based slots have recovered to prepandemic levels. Home-based providers have nearly—but not fully—bounced back.
We also found that care supply had shifted toward larger facilities (particularly for home-based settings) and away from the types of care that priority populations and families with lower incomes may need. And they’d shifted away from Wards 7 and 8, where higher shares of Black families and families with lower incomes live.
Understanding these patterns and their effects can help policymakers explore new ways to maintain and grow a child care supply that meets the needs of all DC families.
DC’s overall child care supply dipped during the pandemic but has since bounced back
From November 2019 to May 2021, the numbers of open DC child care facilities and slots decreased, driven by temporary facility closures during the height of the pandemic. Care supply then increased between July and September 2021, nearly returning to prepandemic levels.
This increase may owe to a combination of factors, including the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and the majority of DC public school students returning to in-person learning in summer 2021. Between September 2021 and September 2022, the total licensed child care supply in DC remained relatively even at around 460 facilities and 26,500 slots. Collectively, these patterns align with other trends of child care use throughout the pandemic.
Data from November 2019 through September 2022 show that facilities grew in their licensed capacity, being approved to serve more children, on average, than before the pandemic; the average number of slots per open care facility increased from 56.1 to 58.5. One possible explanation for this trend is that closures of smaller facilities left unmet demand that existing facilities expanded to meet. It’s also possible that facilities expanded for financial reasons; given the various requirements to be a licensed facility, it can be more cost efficient to expand capacity once enrollment hits a certain threshold—especially if government funding is available to support expansion.
Recovery has been uneven for some child care providers and facility types
Examining patterns in the total supply of child care can mask important differences by facility characteristics. From November 2019 to September 2022, we find the following:
- Center-based child care supply increased slightly. The numbers and sizes of centers fluctuated during the pandemic, with some existing centers expanding their capacity and new large centers opening.
- Home-based providers have not bounced back as completely, and changes in the supply of these providers differ by size. The supply of large home-based providers (licensed to serve 7 to 12 children) increased from 39 to 51 facilities (29 percent), following prepandemic trends in DC. But the supply of small home-based providers (licensed to serve 1 to 6 children) decreased from 68 to 48 facilities (31 percent), mirroring DC and national prepandemic trends for smaller child care homes. Smaller homes closing, larger homes opening, and smaller homes expanding their capacities drove changes in DC’s supply of home-based care.
- Changes in the supply of care differed by ward, with Wards 2, 7, and 8 experiencing different trends than the rest of DC. Between November 2019 and September 2022, the numbers of facilities in Wards 7 and 8 decreased, and the number of slots dropped in Ward 8 too. Wards 7 and 8 have the lowest average family incomes and most residents are Black/African American, largely because these areas have experienced long-term, persistent segregation and disinvestment
Ward 2 also experienced a reduction in facilities and slots. The area has a more affluent and majority-white population and experienced pandemic-related office space vacancies. This could mean fewer parents are commuting to work and seeking care there.
- The supply of facilities providing nontraditional-hour care and accepting subsidy vouchers decreased, and the supply of care serving infants and toddlers grew slightly (although less than the supply for preschoolers and school-age children). This suggests some families—particularly those who have low incomes and work nontraditional hours—may not have sufficient access to the types of child care they need.
- The numbers of facilities and slots in Capital Quality, DC’s quality rating and improvement system, grew. We also saw an increase in new Capital Quality participants, a decrease in the supply of lower-rated care, and an increase in the supply of higher-rated care, which implies any shifts in supply may have resulted in greater overall care quality.
Together these findings suggest that though the overall supply of child care in DC has recovered from the pandemic, it may not be enough to meet the needs of all families.
Recent initiatives in DC have aimed to sustain and increase the supply of higher-quality care for populations such as families with low incomes and families with infants and toddlers (PDF). These initiatives could expand, or new initiatives could be established to serve other groups and geographies in need of support, such as families seeking nontraditional-hour care and underserved wards. More support, including further increasing the subsidy eligibility threshold for families and reducing the burden of participating in the subsidy system for providers, could help maintain and grow a child care supply that better serves all families living in DC.