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Katherine Miller-Bains

Katherine Miller-Bains, Stephen Yu, Daphna Bassok.

Demand for child care in the United States outpaces supply. Understanding access issues is critical for addressing them and supporting children, families, and the economy. However, the most widely available proxy for child care supply—authorized capacity—likely overestimates care availability. Authorized capacity represents the maximum children a provider can legally serve based on safety regulations and physical characteristics of the site. However, the slots available across sites can be constrained by factors not captured by authorized capacity, including the combination of ages currently enrolled and staffing at a site. If the gap between authorized capacity and “current capacity” is large, we stand to underestimate needed investments to improve access. This study quantifies the gap between providers’ “current capacity” as reported in a fall 2022 survey and authorized capacity per administrative records. Using data from 1,968 home- and center-based providers in Virginia, we find three key limitations of authorized capacity as a proxy of supply. First, providers’ current capacity was 74% of their authorized capacity on average. Authorized capacity would overestimate child care availability by more than 30,000 slots across the providers in our sample. Second, center-based providers that accepted child care subsidies and those in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of poverty or people of color had significantly larger discrepancies between their current and authorized capacity. Finally, we find centers that reported challenges hiring and retaining staff had larger gaps between their current and authorized capacity compared to providers that did not report staffing challenges. These findings suggest the need for measures that more accurately and dynamically capture the number of children a provider can serve to better describe and address access inequities.

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