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Why ‘Child Care Deserts’ Are A Pretend Problem


You remember food deserts, don’t you? The government constructed a metric claiming there were insufficient full-service supermarkets within poor urban areas, so the major supermarket chains needed to be shamed or incented into locating in these neighborhoods.

The metric itself always struck me as pretty suspect, since it rather artificially constructed a definition that produced the desired results—requiring that only low-income areas be defined as “deserts,” counting only large supermarkets, setting the distance cut-off in rural areas at much higher levels, and so on. But the concept was politically useful, as big-city mayors celebrated ribbon-cuttings when their prodding produced a new grocery store opening.

Now, in a new report, the Center for American Progress is trying to build on that success by making “Child Care Deserts” a metric to drive government policies. Here’s how (they claim) that works:

Specifically, this analysis defines child care deserts as neighborhoods or communities that are either lacking any child care options or have so few child care providers that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

According to research published by the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of children under age 5 are regularly in nonrelative care; therefore, in places where there are more than three children for every child care slot, there may be child care waiting lists, unlicensed child care arrangements, or effects on parents’ employment decisions.

They conclude that more than half of the population in the 22 states they studied live in “child care deserts,” and that Hispanics and rural families are disproportionately likely to live in such “deserts.” As a consequence of this lack of child care, mothers are less likely to be able to work, and family income is lower.

To solve this problem, the federal government should not only more heavily subsidize child care—the usual and ongoing recommendation of CAP and similar organizations, and the perpetual campaign promise of Democrats—but should also more directly be involved in the “construction and renovation of early childhood facilities.” So what’s missing here?

So Many Inaccurate Assumptions

First, they take it for granted that every child should be in licensed child care, and disregard the choices families have made to find other arrangements that better meet their needs. While there is undoubtedly value in the various licensing programs for home daycare providers, many families may feel their personal connection to their provider is more important than the number of early childhood classes that person has taken.

Second, they perform their analysis based on census tracts, which dramatically overstates their shortages. In urban areas, census tracts are fairly small, which means one may appear to be a “desert” because it’s entirely a residential area, but be immediately adjacent to multiple daycare centers across the street in a more commercial area. Families also tend to prefer to use daycare providers close to work, rather than close to home, because they are less at risk of being trapped in rush-hour traffic (or at the whim of a boss’s last-minute request) and failing to make it to pick-up in time.

The same also is true of many of the rural “deserts.” Consider Peoria, Illinois, for instance. Census tract 39, covering a rural area to the northwest of the city, has 12 child care spots for 575 children under age five. But it’s directly adjacent to 34.01 with 1,035 spots, and only 767 children under age five. Seems to me many of those rural Peorians are commuting into the city for work, and for daycare.

Third, they’ve confused supply and demand. True, they are careful to acknowledge that nothing in their calculations proves a causal relationship, but nonetheless presume that lack of daycare facilities results in nonworking mothers and unlicensed or informal childcare providers. But when there are enough paying customers for childcare centers, entrepreneurs will step in, in the same way as with any other service. Also, given the sparse population of rural areas, it’s simply common sense that it’s not economically feasible for childcare centers to open.

Get Out That Door, Moms

What it all boils down to is yet another way of pitching the notion that all children, following their mothers’ maternity leave, belong in daycare centers, because all mothers, following their maternity leave, belong in the workforce, because, regardless of their personal preferences, that’s “best for them.”

President Obama, going on three years ago now, crystallized this opinion when he said, of stay-at-home mothers, “Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. That’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”

Just a few months ago, the Center for American Progress produced what they called the “Child Care Calculator,” intended to dramatize what a bad—that is, costly—decision it is when mom decides to stay at home. The well-documented reality is, mothers have a strong preference for part-time work. In 2012 polling, about half of mothers with children under age 18 preferred this over full-time or no work. But progressives continue to push the notion that all women’s focus, in order to reach income levels equal to those of men, should always be career achievement, regardless of their stage in life.