40 percent of Vermonters live in child care 'deserts'

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MONTPELIER — One half of all Americans and nearly 40 percent of Vermonters live in communities without any child care or with so few providers there aren't enough slots, according to a Center for American Progress report released last week.

"We want to change the data. We want the deserts to shrink," said Robyn Freedner-Maguire, campaign director at Let's Grow Kids, an advocacy organization focused on the need for more high-quality, affordable child care in Vermont.

The authors of "Mapping America's Child Care Deserts" expanded on a 2016 report by researching the locations of licensed or registered child care providers in 22 states. They found that 51 percent of Americans live in neighborhoods they characterized as child care deserts. They also learned that African-American, Hispanic and low-income families had fewer if any child care options and nearly 60 percent of rural areas

qualify as deserts.

A child care desert is a census tract with more than 50 children under 5 years old that has no child care providers or so few there are three times as many children as there are day care slots. In Vermont 37 percent of people are having that experience, and it doesn't really matter if you are white or another race or if you are rich or poor.

Vermont was 18th out of the 22 states considered. California and New York had the worst situations, with 62 percent and 61 percent, respectively, of the population without access to child care. Iowa had the smallest shortage with 24 percent of the population living in child care deserts.

Freedner-Maguire said Vermont was highlighted because researchers read her group's "Stalled at the Start" report and because the state has invested in universal pre-kindergarten and helps working families afford child care.

Vermont has seen an increase in the number of families with both parents in the workforce. The most recent data show more than 70 percent of children under 6 have two working parents and are likely to need care. Add to that mix, that nearly 47 percent of children who need care don't have access to it in Vermont.

"No matter how you look at it it's a pretty significant child care shortage," said Freedner-Maguire.

Chittenden County, Vermont's most populous, is no exception, Freedner-Maguire said. "It doesn't matter what county you look at we have real challenges for families who are trying to find high quality affordable child care or any regulated child care here in this state," she said.

The national report found that fewer mothers of children under 6 are in the labor force and in low-income areas the gap gets wider. In Vermont, Freedner-Maguire said there is anecdotal evidence that women reduce their hours, move to a flexible schedule or leave the labor force completely because they can't access child care.

Women have also told Let's Grow Kids they have turned down promotions and pay increases to be able to keep benefits that help them better afford child care.

"That is one of the top stories we hear," said Freedner-Maguire.

The Center for American Progress calls on the federal government to make bigger and longer-term investments that help low-income and middle-class families pay for child care and build a child care infrastructure that includes early education.

While federal, state and private funding is all needed to invest in early care and education, Freedner-Maguire said the real question is when do we want to pay for services for our kids.

"Do we want to invest upstream in the early years creating a strong start for our kids to be successful academically, in relationships and in life, or do we want to continue to do what we are doing now, which is to underinvest and ultimately pay in the long term through special education costs, substance abuse" and the criminal justice system?

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