Rathke: There’s No App for Child Care Deserts

New Orleans       When I hit a dead spot where I can’t listen to WAMF 90.3, our community radio station in New Orleans, I will switch for a minute or two to the stations to the left or right of the dial.  There was a discussion on something the broadcaster was calling a “child care desert,” as it turned out, but what I was hearing in the beginning was the standard Silicon Valley-style gospel that there’s “an app for that.”

There were several startups trying to pitch applications that would match parents desperate for child care with people willing and able to provide it.  Their angle involved two channels of recruitment.  On one side they were advertising for would-be small entrepreneurs, largely women, many of them bound to the house with their on small children in their own parched child care desert.  These apps would help them through the process of licensure and set up, and then also help them locate parents looking for that service.  The app-people’s business model was based on taking 10% of the monthly payment for each child enrolled in the new childcare operation.  The woman being interviewed was six-months into the system.  She and her husband had spent $15,000 outfitting their basement in one our western states.  She was now licensed to handle six children, one of whom was her on child.  She was charging $1000 per month, so her gross would have been $5000 minus $500, and then the rest of the expenses of paying back the home loan, food, supplies, and whatever.  She was working alone, and the hours were way over forty per week.  Maybe she was making half of that as her salary, let’s say $2250, which would put her at around $27,000 gross in the best of circumstances, and of course she was accruing some value by having her own child in her own child care.   She said she was Ok, but she didn’t pretend it was heaven.

According to the most recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) a year ago on child care deserts, it’s not pretty for parents in America looking for child care, if they can find it.  They define child care deserts as areas where there are fewer than one provider for every three children under five years of age.  Rural areas have it worse with 59% of the US census tracts in such deserts, but urban areas are right behind at 56% experiencing this situation in their census tracts.  They don’t count childcare provided by friends, parents and grandparents because it is statistically uncertain and unmeasured.  They find women’s unemployment is 3% less in census tracts with child care shortages like these.

Cost is out of control.  $1000 a month per child is a lot of money unless you’re making a pile.  Combine that with low wages for both workers and parents, and this has the making of a child care disaster more than a desert.  Little wonder families are having less children and waiting later when they do so.  We aren’t hearing as much during this election cycle about child care for all as we did in 2016, but this is a huge problem in search of a big solution.