(Source: "Child Care in 25 States: What we know and don’t know" report.)

Unmet childcare needs could be as much as 20% higher in rural communities than in urban ones, a study conducted just before the start of the pandemic shows.

Researchers at the Bipartisan Policy Center calculated the number of childcare slots available locally and compared it to the number of children who likely needed such care because their parents were in the workforce. They found that the “childcare gap” in rural areas exceeded supply by 35%, compared to 29% in metropolitan areas.

The findings were true even though researchers accounted for the longer distances rural families are likely to drive to get their children to daycare.

“Rural areas were underserved far more often than urban areas,” the researchers wrote.

“This dearth of childcare access in rural communities suggests unique challenges for rural working parents.” 

The Bipartisan Policy Center set out to quantify the childcare gap in all 50 states, but collected data for 25 before childcare facilities shut down in March of 2020. The study also wasn’t able to account for changes in demand that may have occurred because of the pandemic, which closed schools and childcare centers and eliminated jobs for some workers and caused others to work from home.

Source: “Child Care in 25 States: What we know and don’t know” report.

Research in 2019 revealed that finding affordable childcare was difficult, and child care expenses have reportedly caused 42% of parents to accrue credit card debt. 

An earlier survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that “only 38% of families in rural settings said finding quality child care within their budget was easy, while over half of families in urban settings said the same.”

Childcare provided by family and neighbors may fill some of the gap, researchers reported. Rural parents were 13% more likely than their urban counterparts to rely on family and friends for child care, and slightly more likely (6%) to move nearer to loved ones for this reason. The study’s authors point out that this could be due to cultural differences in the importance of family caregiving. 

Compared to the national average, some states—including Maine, Texas, Iowa and South Carolina—had a lower portion of unmet need, while North Carolina’s gap is almost double the mean at 57%.

Researchers described their findings as a starting point. To accurately interpret its implications and rebuild childcare systems after the pandemic, researchers will need more data, they wrote. According to the report, “the time is now” to capture such information.