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Much like the 7.8 million families with young children in urban areas, many of the 1.1 million families with young children in rural areas need and use early care and education (ECE). Families across the United States face challenges accessing child care, and challenges often vary by population density. Although the definition of what constitutes an urban, suburban, and rural area differs across studies, the literature suggests that, compared with suburban and urban areas, rural areas face a myriad of challenges that impact the need for, search for, and use of child care. These challenges can include limited employment opportunities, lack of transportation, and less access to higher education.
Additionally, these challenges may contribute to differences in ECE availability, quality, and the types of care families use. Some past research indicates that the types of ECE available and the types of ECE families use differ among urban, suburban, and rural communities. For example, an analysis of the availability of child care across eight states found that 55 percent of children in rural communities live in areas without a child care center, or where the child population was more than three times greater than the child care capacity; in urban areas, only about one-third of children live in areas with low or no availability. In addition, home-based care is more common in rural areas than in urban areas. Research also suggests that families in rural areas prefer home-based or relationship-based care over center-based care. There is little information on the differences in provider characteristics and quality across rural and urban settings and a clear need for developing a foundational understanding of quality across child care settings, both centers and homes, in rural and urban areas.
In this report we provide a descriptive comparison of the early care and education (ECE) landscape across rural, moderate density urban (suburban), and high density urban areas to understand if ECE availability and characteristics in rural areas differ from those in more densely-populated communities. We utilized nationally-representative data on both households with young children and ECE providers to describe availability of care, use of and need for child care, and setting and provider characteristics in rural, moderate density urban, and high density urban areas.
The purpose of this report is to use nationally representative data from the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) to provide a descriptive comparison of the types of ECE available in high density urban, moderate density urban (suburban), and rural areas, as well as a descriptive comparison of the need for and use of child care among families with young children in both urban and rural areas. This report sheds light on differences in ECE by urbanicity on a national scale. Given the importance of high-quality ECE for children’s development and school readiness, understanding the differences in supply and demand for ECE between rural, moderate density urban (suburban), and high density urban areas can highlight unmet needs for care and supports needed by the ECE workforce in order to provide high-quality care and support for children’s development.
Key Findings and Highlights
- In absolute numbers, more ECE providers of every provider type (e.g., center-based, listed home-based, unlisted paid home-based) were available in high density urban areas compared with rural areas. As a proportion of all available center-based and listed home-based care, center-based care was no less available in rural areas than in urban areas based on both the number of centers per family and the proportion of providers that were center-based, as compared to listed home-based, across communities.
- A smaller proportion of centers served infants and toddlers in rural areas compared to both moderate and high density urban areas and a smaller proportion of infants and toddlers in rural areas regularly used center-based care compared to those in moderate density, but not high density, urban areas.
- Fewer than 50 percent of families with infants and toddlers in rural areas searched for care in the past year, which is proportionally fewer than families in moderate density urban areas and proportionally similar to families in high density urban areas.
- Findings signal that families in rural and moderate density urban areas may have a greater need for care during nonstandard hours. While few families in any area worked solely nonstandard hours, proportionally more families in rural and moderate density urban areas reported working a mix of both standard and nonstandard hours compared to families in high density urban areas.
- Compared to centers in high density urban areas, proportionally more rural centers were sponsored by a public school or received funding from Head Start or public pre-K. A greater proportion of rural centers offered transportation than centers in high density urban areas, which may be linked to the higher proportion of centers that are sponsored by public schools or received funding from Head Start or public pre-K.
- No significant differences in selected indicators of provider quality such as turnover rates or providing or referring to ancillary services were observed among rural, moderate density, or high density urban centers or homes.
- Listed home-based teachers and caregivers in rural areas reported taking fewer professional development opportunities compared to their counterparts in moderate density and high density urban areas. A higher percentage of listed home-based teachers and caregivers in rural areas had an ECE certification compared to their peers in moderate density urban areas, but rural listed home-based teachers and caregivers were not significantly different from their peers in high density urban areas.
The data presented in the report are from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), a set of nationally-representative surveys of child care settings, the child care workforce, and families with young children from 2012. In this report, we use data from all four of the national surveys. We examined several key features of ECE available across the four NSECE surveys; household need for and use of care, household difficulty finding care, ECE setting characteristics (including setting quality), and ECE workforce characteristics. The key features were compared across three levels of rurality.
By using a nationally-representative data source, our findings describe the state of ECE across rural and urban communities in the United States. We found few significant differences between rural, moderate density urban, and high density urban areas, but findings suggest that the supply of and demand for care does vary by rurality.
To understand the experiences of families more fully, ECE settings, and ECE providers in rural areas it is important to conduct more local (i.e., regional, or state-specific) research on rural ECE. Specifically, we highlight the following important future directions for research in this area:
- Consider within-state variability in the experience of families and ECE settings and programs within and across rural areas.
- Consider the policy landscape when comparing across rural areas, whether within or across states.
- Explore in more depth the variability in quality of ECE settings and supports for the ECE workforce both within and across rural communities.
- Determine rural ECE programs’ involvement in and perceptions of quality rating improvement systems.
- Continue to probe the unique needs of families in rural areas, including the care they prefer, and the types of care they need (e.g., nonstandard hours), both within and across rural communities.
- Continue to map the interplay of supply and demand within urban areas, to determine what levels of availability constitute sufficient supply in areas with high population densities.
- Consider how differences in how rurality is operationalized differentially reflects the experiences and needs of families and ECE providers in non-metropolitan areas.
- The population density of a community; defined in this study as three types of areas: rural, moderate density urban, and high density urban.