There are two primary needs for early care and education programs: 1) allowing parents to work; and 2) promoting child development and school readiness. To meet these needs an adequate supply of quality, accessible child care and early education programs is required. In many instances, quality care that is geographically and financially accessible is in short supply.
The first step in ensuring that an adequate supply of early childhood programs is available is to determine the unmet community need. Unmet need is the gap between the demand for child care and the available supply. There are a variety of methods for assessing child care need that range from relatively simple to more sophisticated. The potential demand for child care can be estimated by taking the number of children in a specified age range and multiplying it by the percentage of mothers in the workforce. A more refined view of child care need addresses the question of the types of care that are needed in relationship to the types of child care services that are available. While there is often a shortage of quality, accessible child care across the board in a given locale, certain types of care are almost always in short supply. Included among those types of care for which there is likely to be unmet need are:
- Infant-toddler care
- Care for children with disabilities and special needs
- Child care during evening hours and on weekends
- High quality care available to low-income children and families
Beyond the issue of whether or not an adequate supply for child care exists, is the question of accessibility to that care. Accessibility to care can be viewed as having three dimensions:
- Financial Access – Can the families with need afford the cost of care?
- Geographic Access – Is available child care located where families can reasonably get to it in terms of transit routes, distance, and travel time?
- Cultural Competency – Are the available child care services attuned to cultural differences and able to respond to the cultural needs and practices of the children and families to be served?
The issue of financial accessibility is closely related to two factors: (1) the cost of child care; and (2) the types of assistance that are available to assist families in meeting those costs. There are two primary means of assistance in making child care more affordable. In a limited number of instances, employers operate child care centers and may underwrite some of the cost of care, making it more affordable for parents. More frequent assistance with the cost of care comes via State Child Care Assistance Programs that provide financial support for low-income, working families. State child care assistance programs are funded through the federal Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG). States are granted flexibility to design their programs within broad federal requirements. The Missouri Child Care Assistance Program, that has the nation’s most stringent eligibility requirements and also reimburses providers at one of the lowest rates, provides only marginal assistance helping families meet their need for quality, accessible child care.
Finally, as is noted elsewhere on this Children’s Policy Forum website, a critical concern in meeting the need for child care and early childhood development programs is ensuring that the programs and services provided are high quality. The many benefits that can result from early childhood programs only accrue to individual children and the larger community if quality care is provided.