Forty-Two Percent of Children Under 5 Live in a Child Care “Desert”

Mississippi’s child care desert is especially evident for infants and toddlers: There are currently only enough spots at licensed child care centers for about 23 percent of the state’s youngest children.

That’s one of the findings of a new report by the Center for American Progress, which analyzed census data and state child care licensing data to determine the extent to which infant and toddler care is available in nine states, including Mississippi, North Carolina and West Virginia, and in the District of Columbia. The report takes an in-depth look at data revealed last year in another Center for American Progress report that found 42 percent of children under the age of 5 live in a child care desert, defined as areas in which there are either no child care centers or so few centers that at least three children need care for every spot available.

The new report found that an average of 5.4 infants and toddlers are in need of care for every infant and toddler spot at a licensed center across the ten locations studied. In Mississippi, the counties with the greatest undersupply of licensed infant and toddler child care include Smith County, where there are more than 68 infants and toddlers for every licensed spot, and Greene County, where the ratio is 41.5 infant and toddlers for every spot. Madison County, Hinds County, and Humphreys County had most proportional supply of spots in licensed centers at 2.1, 2.7 and 2.8 toddlers and infants per available spot, respectively.

Benton County, Mississippi, was singled out for special attention in the report: Although 97 percent of young children in the county have a working parent and half of 3-and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, the county does not even have one licensed child care provider accepting infants or toddlers.

Child care availability is critical for working parents: The report’s authors caution that without safe and reliable care parents “may be forced to make tradeoffs that result in less engaging and reliable child care for their children or that harm their family’s economic security.” High-quality care is important in the early years when the brain is rapidly developing, and can have an impact on a child’s cognitive skills.

Nationwide, more than half of all infants and toddlers are in the care of their father or a grandparent during their mother’s work hours, but about 16 percent of infants and 25 percent of toddlers are in center-based licensed child care. Child care centers, which represent the majority of available child care spots in the United States, tend to have more spaces available to serve kids than home-based providers, which are often limited to serving small groups of children.

This story about child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.