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Child Care in 25 States: What we know and don’t know

Quantifying the Supply of, Potential Need for, and Gaps in Child Care Across the Country


In the landmark Military Child Care Act of 1989, Congress required that the Department of Defense submit a report on the need for child care for military personnel and along with it a plan for how we would meet the need. The report describing the unmet need was submitted in 1992, and since then, the Defense Department has made enormous progress in closing the child care gap. There has been no similar report for the rest of the country, nor have we developed a national plan to meet the child care need for the nation’s families. Without a clear understanding of the actual supply available versus the actual need for care—the child care gap—it is impossible to quantify either the actual child care spaces needed or the corresponding costs—what it takes to close that gap—and ultimately to develop a plan to ensure that all families in America have access to affordable, reliable, and quality care for their children that supports them in their daily lives.

This study was originally intended to answer the first of those questions: What is the actual gap for all 50 states? The work began in 2019. Working with state government officials, we analyzed child care data for 12 states. Representatives from these states served as our State Advisory Committee to help guide the work. This committee met in-person in December 2019, and with their input, we made modifications to the project design and moved forward to analyze the remaining states. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the child care supply shifted radically, we determined that continuing to map the remaining states would not be possible. We decided instead to complete the 25 states included in this report, pause, and then reevaluate the same 25 states post-COVID-19 to determine the impact of the pandemic on the available supply of child care and changes in the potential need.

Early in our work, we identified two major challenges that are addressed in this report. The first is the need for better data at the state level, and we make several recommendations that we hope will guide states as they work to better understand child care within their own states. In all except two states, we lack data on the capacity of child care programs to serve the various age groups. While there is extensive anecdotal information about the lack of infant care, the actual availability is unknown. The second challenge that became apparent early in the process was the lack of understanding of exactly what parents want. Do parents want care closer to home or closer to work, what are they looking for when they choose care, and are there differences in child care preference between urban and rural parents? Is the lack of care in some communities because parents cannot afford care or because they prefer something that is not available? Through a series of national parent surveys, we have attempted to answer some of these questions. Although more needs to be done, some of our findings to date are incorporated in the narrative. In 2021, we intend to reexamine the care in these 25 states and the impact COVID-19 has had on the nation’s supply. In the meantime, we will continue to work to better understand parents’ needs and preferences and the impact they have on the supply of care.

In closing, we especially want to thank the 12 state officials who served on the advisory committee and the state officials in each of the 25 states for their countless hours in helping us with this project. We recognize that much of this work was done in the midst of the pandemic which made their support even more challenging. Finally, were it not for Anubhav Bagley and his relentless optimism and willingness to constantly make changes, this project would have been impossible.

Linda K. Smith

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Child care plays a critical role in ensuring parents can work, children can learn, and the economy can thrive.1 In recent years, there has been broad bipartisan support at all levels of government to ensure all working parents have access to child care. And during the coronavirus pandemic support for child care has only grown2,3. But amid efforts to improve child care access, an important underlying question has yet to be answered: “how much additional child care does the country need?”

The Military Child Care Act which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991,4 posed this question to the Department of Defense in 1989 when it required the Secretary of Defense to conduct an assessment of the needs for child care among Americans associated with the United States Armed Forces. As it states:

“Not later than six months after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to Congress a report on demand for child care by military and civilian personnel in the Armed Forces over the five-year period beginning on the date of submission of the report. The report shall include a plan for meeting that demand, the cost of implementing such plan, and methods for monitoring the military’s family day care program.”

However, in the nearly three decades since this question was raised, an answer has not been produced for the United States as a whole. It should be noted that there have been serious efforts to investigate the need for child care. Spurred by the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B-5),5 many states have undertaken assessments to define the need for child care within their borders. Beginning in December 2018, the PDG B-5 competitive grant awarded 46 states one-year funds to conduct state-level needs assessments6. But these studies are not consistently available to the public and do not offer nationally comparative data that can inform both federal and state policy, alike.

Organizations like Child Care Aware of America and the Center for American Progress have developed informative maps on national child care access that have contributed greatly to our understanding of child care supply and the characteristics of communities that typically lack adequate supply7,8. Yet, no analysis has both quantified the national gap in child care and done so in a way that accurately reflects how parents access child care programs in reality.

Incorporating the most comprehensive child care supply data collected to date, and an advanced methodology that incorporates parent choice data to calculate the number of children whose families do not have reasonable access to care, the present child care gap analysis conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative provides a long overdue answer to the child care access question and offers a starting point from which the country can work to close the child care gap. With such data, federal, state, and local policymakers can produce evidence-based strategies and budget requests to expand the supply of child care in a manner that reflects the quantity of additional child care communities actually need.

This report, accompanied by an interactive map, describes BPC’s mapping methodology, insights gleaned from the data collection process that states can use to optimize the ways they collect supply data, and national findings on the gap in child care according to geographic location and socioeconomic factors across the country. The report also includes an important discussion about the further need to fully understand parents’ child care choices at the national and local level in order to accurately apply these findings to policy decisions.

The present analysis measured the supply of, need for, and gap in child care in 25 states prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. BPC’s complete 50-state analysis was cut short by the national emergency. A national parent survey conducted by BPC and Morning Consult in August 2020 indicates that child care supply and parent child care preferences will look different as the nation recovers from the effects of the virus.9 Thus, BPC plans to conduct a subsequent post-COVID-19 analysis to measure changes in child care access from before and after the crisis. However, when there are changes to the system, the availability of child care access data is even more important. BPC believes that the data collection lessons, child care gap findings, and new parent choice data discussed in this report can provide critical information to inform child care policy decisions that will effectively help the system recover.

Project Overview

To accurately map child care access across the United States, BPC ensured that all methodological decisions were approved by state child care officials who could speak to the intricacies of the child care landscape on the ground. Every step of the analysis was guided by an advisory committee comprised of representatives from 12 states (see table below). BPC first analyzed the child care gap in these 12 states and during the process the committee developed consistent definitions of supply and need, identified additional data resources and analyses for incorporation, reviewed analytics, and advised BPC on how to present the results in ways that would be most useful for states. The methodology crafted through this preliminary analysis was used to perform analyses on all further states. The following overview discusses the methodology and the key decisions the committee made to shape it.

12-State Advisory Committee

Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, Department of Early Education and Care, MA
Nichole Anderson, Department of Family Services,WY
Crystal Arbour, Office of Child and Family Services, ME
Jill Bushnell, Child Care Collaborative Task Force, WA
Patty Butler, Early Childhood Services Bureau, MT
Tracey Campanini, Office of Child Development and Early Learning, PA
Tracy Gruber, Office of Child Care, UT
Chris Jones, Department of Human Services, ND
Lori Masseur, Early Childhood Education and Head Start Collaboration Office, AZ
Nicol Russell, AZ
Jeana Ross, Department of Early Childhood Education, AL
Julie Preskitt, The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, AL
Kristi Snuggs, Division of Child Development and Early Education, NC
Nicole Vint, Department of Health and Human Services, NE

In order to produce comprehensive, nationally comparative data on the child care gap, BPC originally set out to map child care access in all 50 states. However, when the coronavirus pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders in March, BPC halted the analysis as a parent survey conducted with Morning Consult in April indicated that there would likely be major changes to the child care landscape.10 This report and accompanying interactive map present the results from 25 states highlighted in the map below.

25 States:

North Dakota
West Virginia
North Carolina
South Carolina

Mapping Child Care Supply

BPC worked closely with each of the 25 states included in this analysis to capture the complete landscape of formal child care and early learning facilities in those states in 2019. Licensed child care only constitutes one part of the formal child care supply. As outlined in BPC’s 2018 report, Creating an Integrated Efficient Early Care and Education System to Support Children and Families: A State-by-State Analysis, 11 the formal child care system is comprised of a patchwork of child care centers, family child care homes, state Pre-K programs, preschools, Head Start, military-certified or registered programs, and license-exempt care designated by state statutes.

After discussion with the 12-state advisory committee, it was clear that any analysis of child care supply that is representative of what parents truly experience on the ground must incorporate this array of child care settings. Therefore, BPC sought to collect supply data on all legally operated and state-recognized providers—a definition of child care supply agreed to by the committee. However, in many states, a number of different agencies separately collect and maintain data on certain types of child care programs. There are also no uniform definitions of these different types of formal care and early learning programs across states.

Thus, BPC worked directly with each state’s various child care and education agencies to understand the 129 different facility types across states and build comprehensive datasets of each provider’s location and capacity (see Appendix for additional contacts). These close working relationships with states—along with BPC’s efforts to work with the federal Department of Health and Human Services to understand Head Start data, with the American Indian and Alaska Native tribes to incorporate tribal child care, and with the Department of Defense to capture early care and education settings operating on military installations—were necessary to ensure that the spatial analysis did not overcount or undercount supply. BPC only incorporated each state’s child care supply data into the analysis once the state approved of the dataset. The quality of the supply data gathered for this project makes this child care mapping analysis the most comprehensive known to date. And in an effort to continuously improve the analysis, the supply data is subject to change as BPC encourages states to continuously include additional facilities information that could make the dataset more complete.

It is important to note, however, that through this data collection process, it became apparent that there were barriers to gaining a complete picture of the child care supply. In conversations with the advisory committee, many representatives shared concerns about accounting for public prekindergarten programs that operate on part-day schedules. Clearly, for parents working full-time, these settings do not meet their full child care needs. It is unclear how these programs fit into the supply landscape because it is not currently known how parents who enroll their children in these programs arrange for care during preprogram or post-program hours.

Beyond the simple capacity of care, many states also have quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS). Quality rating systems can be an important source of information for parents as they choose their providers and might mean parents favor certain high-quality providers in the supply landscape. But given the voluntary nature of most state QRIS and the varying requirements across state QRIS, it was not possible to review the supply of quality-rated care in a uniform, consistent manner. BPC tracked challenges like these and gleaned important insights into how state agencies can collect data in ways that are more informative for the future. These recommendations are outlined later in this report.

Mapping the Potential Need for Child Care

BPC mapped the potential need for child care in each state, rather than the demand for child care.

  • Child Care Demand: the rate at which parents and families actually utilize
    or look for formal child care
  • Potential Child Care Need: all children under six with all available parents in the labor force

While the use of child care demand would have enabled BPC to make a more representative estimate of the amount of additional child care supply actually needed , many seasonal and family-related factors influence demand and there is little data available on the actual demand for child care by geographic area. Thus, BPC and the advisory committee decided to focus this analysis on the potential need for child care by using 2014-2018 American Community Survey (ACS) data on the number of children under age six with all available parents in the labor force.12

As a result, child care gap estimates from this report provide informative starting points from which states can begin to make policy recommendations, but any recommendations must also consider how much and what types of child care parents will actually use. A later section discusses data from BPC’s national parent surveys that illuminate the kinds of information necessary for accurately interpreting these findings.

Measuring the Gap

Building on methodology developed by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) in Phoenix, AZ, BPC compared the supply of and potential need for child care in each of the 25 states. However, simply comparing supply and potential need within a particular zip code or census block group would not reflect how parents choose child care providers in reality. Parents do not restrict their child care choices to the boundaries of their zip code or census block group. Such an approach would lead to an unrealistic distribution of child care surplus and child care gaps: high gap areas and high surplus areas would fall adjacent to each other.

Instead, in order to help child care administrators accurately identify underserved areas, BPC incorporated insights about parent choices into the methodology. From October 11–17, 2019, Morning Consult surveyed on BPC’s behalf a national sample of parents about their child care choices—all parents had children under age six, paid for child care at the time, and had a household member working.

Instead, in order to help child care administrators accurately identify underserved areas, BPC incorporated insights about parent choices into the methodology. From October 11–17, 2019, Morning Consult surveyed on BPC’s behalf a national sample of parents about their child care choices—all parents had children under age six, paid for child care at the time, and had a household member working.13 The results revealed that parents predominantly drive for child care, as 86% of the 800 parents surveyed said they typically drive to their child care arrangement. And 60% of parents said they prefer child care closer to home, while just 27% said they prefer child care closer to their workplace or school. Following these trends, BPC implemented the MAG methodology which incorporates driving distance from home to measure the child care gap—the number of children who potentially need child care but whose families cannot reasonably access formal child care facilities by driving.

Each census block group was assigned a service area of a specific radius, based on driving distance. It was assumed that the families with children under age six in a given block group could reasonably access the child care slots available in the facilities within their given service area (see left image below). Thus, potential child care need within the block group was proportionally allocated to the child care providers within the service area.

It is important to note a limitation of using ACS data for this analysis: the data do not provide exact household locations and can only be geographically disaggregated down to the level of census block group. Thus, it is not possible to calculate each household’s exact distance from a provider. However, the ACS provides the best available household data estimates to date. Because service areas from neighboring block groups typically overlapped (see right image below), providers were allocated children from all block groups whose service area the facility fell into, until all provider capacity was filled. A complex matrix balancing operation was used to balance the allocations from each block group to achieve the maximum allocation of children possible. A complete explanation of the mathematical methodology can be found here.

To further incorporate parent choices into the methodology, rural block groups were assigned larger service areas than urban and suburban block groups. In the Morning Consult survey,14 a much larger percentage of parents from rural areas said they typically drive 10 or more miles to their child care arrangement, compared to suburban and urban parents.

In order to assign service areas that most accurately reflected the distances parents in those block groups were willing to drive for child care, BPC estimated service area radii using results from the survey and an analysis of child-level address data from Maine. This analysis found that among children receiving subsidy, parents in urban areas lived around 3.5 miles from their child care arrangement, while rural parents lived 7.5 miles from theirs. Data from one other state not included in this analysis suggested a similar pattern. To adjust for these driving distance differences in the methodology, urban and suburban block groups were, on average, assigned radii of 3.5 miles and rural block groups were assigned radii of 10 miles. In certain states, based on their recommendations, a different distance was used.

Because only 25 states were included in this analysis, cross-state interactions could not be incorporated for all state borders. At state borders where the adjacent state was not included, the state boundary line served as an artificial barrier that would not likely affect parent child care decisions in reality. To produce accurate gap estimates for populations on state borders, gaps would need to be recalculated with a complete 50-state dataset.

Overall, this methodology enabled BPC to estimate the number of children in each census block whose families did not have access to formal child care.

Read the full report

End Notes:

1 Bipartisan Policy Center, Building Bipartisan Support for Child Care: A Toolkit, September 2019. Available at:
2 Kevin McCarthy, “Schools and Child Care Must Reopen for Kids, Parents and the Economy,” USA Today, July 7, 2020. Available at:
3 Lucy Danley, “23 Republican and Democratic Senators Call for More Relief for ChildCare Providers,” First Five Years Fund, May 12, 2020. Available at:
4 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991, Pub. L. No. 101-189, November 29, 1989. Available at:
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five Competition,” Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Care, August 23, 2018. Available at:
6 Ibid.
7 Child Care Aware of America, Child Care Data Center, July 2020. Available at:
8 Rasheed Malik, Katie Hamm, Won F. Lee, Elizabeth E. Davis, and Aaron Sojourner, The Coronavirus Will Make Child Care Deserts Worse and Exacerbate Inequality, Center for American Progress, June 22, 2020. Available at:
9 Linda K. Smith and Sarah Tracey, “Child Care in COVID-19: Another Look at What Parents Want,” Bipartisan Policy Center, August 26, 2020. Available at:
10 Bipartisan Policy Center, “Nationwide Survey: Child Care in the Time of Coronavirus,” April 10, 2020. Available at:
11 Bipartisan Policy Center, Creating an Integrated Efficient Early Care and Education System to Support Children and Families: A State-by-State Analysis, December 2018. Available at:
12 U.S. Census Bureau. 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-year Public Use Microdata Samples. December 17, 2019. Available at:
13 Bipartisan Policy Center, “Nationwide Child Care Poll: Child Care Costs Impact Families’ Employment, Savings, and Future Planning,” November 6, 2019. Available at:
14 Ibid.

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