Measuring and Comparing Multiple Dimensions of Early Care and Education Access

Publication Date: May 25, 2021
Cover image for Measuring and Comparing Multiple Dimensions of Early Care and Education Access

Download Report

Download Report PDF (5,405.50 KB)
  • File Size: 5,405.50 KB
  • Pages: 35
  • Published: 2021


Child care access has long been studied as the number of child care slots relative to the number of children living in an area. Such methodologies have yielded estimates of the number of children living in “child care deserts.” This understanding of child care access is a foundational first step to identifying areas where families may not have access to care; however, it is a narrow definition of access, as it does not account for the lived experiences of families, including their needs, preferences, and qualifications for various types of child care and how those factors intersect with the characteristics of care in their immediate geographic area. In 2017, Child Trends, guided by a need to represent access as multi-dimensional and family-centric, released a new definition of child care: Parents, with reasonable effort and affordability, can enroll their child in an arrangement that supports the child’s development and meets the parents’ needs.

In this report, we used the new multi-dimensional family-centric definition of access to measure families’ access to center-based and non-relationship-based home-based child care across the United States. Relying on the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), we estimated national estimates of families’ local access to child care, along each of the four dimensions identified in the multi-dimensional definition of child care access. Our analyses demonstrate how the multi-dimensional definition illuminates gaps in child care access that are hidden by more rudimentary “slot to tot” analyses, and also highlight the persistently low levels of child care access for families with infants and toddlers.  


The purpose of this report is to use nationally representative data from the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) to measure and compare access to center-based and home-based child care among families with infants and toddlers and families with preschoolers across the United States. We consider how access not only represents access to any child care slot, but to slots that meet various characteristics, including those that reflect the family’s needs and preferences, such as available at a low-cost, or during times when the family is working. The findings in this report represent the first analyses conducted using the multi-dimensional definition of access; they provide a methodological roadmap for other researchers interested in characterizing access using this new, family-centric definition.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Access, when measured based on total slots relative to the number of children, was, on average, lower than the threshold set in the child care deserts work (3 children per slot)  for families with preschool-aged children, but higher than the desert threshold for the average family with an infant or toddler. This finding is consistent with previous research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that parents of infants and toddlers have more difficulty finding child care than parents of preschoolers. 
  • Families across the income spectrum, on average, had low access to low-priced care. This was particularly pronounced for families with infants and toddlers, for whom the access was very low. The average family with a budget of $5,000/year for child care lived in areas with a minimum of 13 children per slot (depending on family income and child age).
  • Families with infants and toddlers generally had very low access to free infant and toddler care, while families with preschool-aged children, particularly low-income families, had higher, but still low, access to free child care.
  • Access to programs with teachers with CDAs or certifications to teach young children was, generally, higher than access to programs with degreed teachers; however, access was higher for families with preschool-aged children than families with infants and toddlers.
  • Access to programs that operate at nonstandard hours was, generally, higher than access to programs with degreed teachers. In addition, access was somewhat higher for families with preschool-aged children than families with infants and toddlers.
  • Access also differed by family race and ethnicity; for example. Hispanic families with infants and toddlers lived in areas with the highest levels of access to free care.
  • Findings did not indicate any differences in access between families with low-incomes and families with non-low-incomes.
  • Families with infants and toddlers who used center-based care as the primary type of child care for their infant or toddler lived in areas with greater access to child care compared to families who used unpaid home-based care or parental care only as their primary care type.


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 calculated the total number of children from families who met particular characteristics within a county, as well as the total number of enrollment slots from center-based and home-based providers who met particular characteristics within a county; together, these values became Access ratios that represented the number of “tots” per enrollment “slot.” We developed access ratios that represented each dimension in the Access definition: Reasonable Effort, Affordability, Supports the Child’s Development, and Meets the Parents’ Needs. We examined each access ratio descriptively, to examine overall rates of access across the country, and then examined how each access ratio varied by child age, race and ethnicity, family income, and primary child care use type.


By using a nationally-representative data source to model local child care markets and potential demand with the new multi-dimensional definition of access, our findings are the first to consider how access varies by the needs and preferences of families. Families had wide ranging levels of access to care across the United States, and access differed by dimension. The threshold set by the child care deserts work masks many realities of the types of care families need and prefer, as well as the quality of available care. However, we found that on the whole, care is accessible at levels that may prove challenges for families to access, particularly for families with infants and toddlers.

The analyses presented in this report are an important first step in measuring access with a family-centric, multi-dimensional definition and methodology. However, there are many future directions for research in this area:

  • Our definition of local child care markets included geographic areas the size of counties; markets are likely not this big, and so more localized analyses are warranted.
  • Future work should examine the intersection of multiple dimensions, as is intended in the definition of access.
  • Thresholds for what can be considered ’low access’, ’adequate access’, and/or ’high access’ have not been established; future research to understand the best ratio of children per slot that constitutes various discrete levels of access is needed for policymaking and program decision-making.
  • In order to describe a full portrait of access, future work should include relationship-based providers, such as family, friend, and neighbor care. Supply of and demand for these types of providers may reflect family preference or be related to levels of access to other, non-relationship-based, provider types