Do “child-care deserts” highlighted in the Washington Post really exist?

The Washington Post says, “A Minnesota community wants to fix its child-care crisis. It’s harder than it imagined.” Duluth City Councilperson Arik Forsman wants to solve the “region’s child-care crisis” and the reporter, Robert Samuels, vaguely cites “studies [that] have shown… more than half of the country lives in a child-care desert — places where there is a yawning gap between the number of slots needed for children and the number of existing spaces at child-care centers.” The link in his story leads to the highly partisan Center for American Progress website, which defines a child-care desert crisis using cherry-picked data to fit this definition: “any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.”

Numerous rural census tracks are likely not to have any child-care providers, due to vast travel distances and low population density, but could still meet the low bar of 50 young children. The second part of the definition presupposes that most parents want to place their child in child-care, ignoring the reality that there still lots of people who don’t want their child in institutionalized child-care—they have one parent who stays home or who works at home (like I did when my kids, and S + A, were young). Some parents prefer to use family and friend networks. The cost of providing child-cage to infants and toddlers is very high—imagine trying to care for 30 kids, who are not potty-trained, and go on from there.

The “crisis” is based on specious data collected to make a political point, not address the actual issues. I know because we write lots of Head Start, Pre-K For All, and similar proposals under the umbrella of “early childhood education,” which is the theme for almost all child-care grant programs. Head Start is by far the largest publicly-funded early childhood education program and emphasizes “education.” Government funders always insist that child-care providers, including Early Head Start (birth – 3), focus on “education” rather than the custodial care model that largely disappeared 30 years ago. It officially disappeared; in reality, most children under age five are mentally equipped for play far more than they are for educational activities. Still, when we write a child-care/early childhood education proposal, we always state that the program will use the ever-popular “TeachingStratgies Creative Curriculum.” In this curriculum, even very young children are supposedly taught things like “pre-reading” (whatever that is) and other quasi-academic subjects. The typical “class schedule” for child-care programs, however, includes maybe two out of eight hours in alleged academic activities, with the rest of the day devoted to things like welcome and closing circles, snacks and lunch, hand-washing, nap time, outdoor/indoor play, etc.

Many contributing factors that come together to limit child-care options: just like with the affordable housing/homelessness crisis, much of the shortage of child-care slots is due to basic zoning rules (a topic we have covered extensively), as well as strict licensing requirements. In the abstract, most people support the idea of convenient child-care—until an actual facility is proposed down the street, and then existing residents think about 60 frisky kids whooping it up on their block, with fleets of parents dropping-off and picking-up kids. This type of proposal brings out the NIMBYs in force. They will use zoning to fight this “blighting” influence—and will usually win.

Also, ever since the hysteria over the fake McMartin Preschool abuse scandal in 1983, child-care facility regulations, even for home-based child-care, have become very stringent. While likely a good thing overall, this drives up the cost of operating child-care facilities. Even Head Start programs, which are fully federally-funded, have a hard time opening new facilities and keeping them open. All child-care programs, whether for-profit or non-profit, operate on thin margins and can be sunk by regulatory problems.

Then, there’s the challenge of finding and keeping “teachers.” Since Head Start was created in 1965, the open secret has been that it’s as much of a jobs program as an early childhood eduction program. The teachers, who might have a certificate of some sort but are rarely licensed teachers, are often the same moms who put their kids in the program, creating a sort of closed-loop system.

This worked fairly well until a perfect storm recently hit. As we wrote about in early 2019 “The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC,” this effort spells trouble for all child-care programs—the Minnesota minimum wage rises to $10/hour on January 1, 2020 and is set to rise to $15/hour by 2022. Staff costs make up the vast majority of child-care program budgets and rapidly rising minimum wages mean higher fees for parents, and they require larger public subsidies (which are not available in most municipalities). Ergo, it’s much harder to open a child-care facility and keep it open, even if qualified staff can be found. With an unemployment rate of less than 4% in the Duluth area, good staff are hard to find.

In related news, “Government Standards Are Making 5-Year-Olds and Kindergarten Teachers Miserable.” It seems that the bureaucrats who make these decisions have never interacted with actual human five-year-olds.

Nonetheless, we’re delighted to add the concept of child-care deserts to the equally ephemeral “food deserts” concept we often use in proposals. In grant writing, it’s not possible to have too many Potemkin deserts to add color to otherwise drab needs assessments. And many funders are more excited about solving marginal problems than real ones, like regulatory overreach and zoning.

4 thoughts on “Do “child-care deserts” highlighted in the Washington Post really exist?”

  1. Jennifer

    “The cost of providing child-cage to infants and toddlers….”

    Let me tell you, if there’s anyone who needs to be put in a cage….

  2. Kathryn Daugherty

    Your article states (re: Head Start teachers): “The teachers, who might have a certificate of some sort but are rarely licensed teachers…”

    These are the teacher requirements from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/publication/education-requirements-center-based-preschool-teachers

    45 CFR §1302.91(e)(2)(ii) “…a program must ensure all [preschool] center-based teachers have…an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in:

    child development [or] early childhood education (ECE)
    [with] equivalent coursework [to a major relating to ECE and experience teaching preschool children], or
    otherwise meet the requirements of section 648A(a)(3)(B) of the Act.”
    45 CFR §1302.91(e)(2)(i) “…no less than fifty percent of all Head Start teachers, nationwide, have a baccalaureate degree.”

    Your thoughts?

    1. Jake Seliger

      Looks like another example of occupational licensing holding a lot of people back.

      Ending excessive occupational licensing is one of these goals that should transcend the political left/right. The political left is very concerned with empowering workers and the political right is very concerned with excessive regulation. The two intersect in this issue.

    2. Isaac Seliger Post Author

      Depends on what is meant by “teacher.” Most early childhood proposals we work on have this classroom staffing pattern: one “teacher” and one or two “aides” or “assistants.” The aides are rarely required to have any more than a certificate, if that. Also, note that caveat in the regs your site: “. . . or
      otherwise meet the requirements of section 648A(a)(3)(B) of the Act. 45 CFR §1302.91(e)(2)(i)” whatever that means. Not impressed by the goal of 50% of HS teachers having a BA. Last time I checked, 50% is a F in high school or college. Then, there’re all the non-HS programs like UPK for All in New York, which barely seem to have any credentialing standards. But, we’re just grant writers, not “educators” so what do we know?

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