A recent article by Will Wright in the Lexington Herald-Leader highlighted the critical need for child care and, in particular, lack of access in Eastern Kentucky.  The imperative to increase access and to invest in our youngest children was crystallized in a blog post and op-ed by Cindy McGaha and Andrea Woodward – both professors at Berea College.  We could not agree more.

So, let’s talk more about child care deserts in Kentucky.

In January, we highlighted concerns about the number of Kentucky children not reaching proficiency in reading and math by third grade. One thing we know works in addressing this critical issue is access to high-quality early learning opportunities, beginning at birth. In Kentucky, such opportunities are often delivered through child care providers serving infants up to school age children. Children from low-income families may qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to help offset the cost. The main types are:

Definition This provider is center-based and operates on a scale of anywhere from 13 or more children; they receive CCAP and private pay and have multiple employees. This provider can care for 7 to 12 children and is based in a home; they receive CCAP and private pay and typically have two people working at once. This provider can care for four related children and up to six additional children and is based in a home; they receive CCAP and private pay. This provider can care for their own children (no more than five) and up to three unrelated children (8 maximum); they have registered with the state and are eligible for CCAP and private pay. This provider is typically someone who has not registered as a provider with the state. They are not CCAP eligible and can care for up to three unrelated children who don’t receive CCAP legally.

Since 2013, total child care capacity has declined. There are several reasons cited including centers being closed, providers retiring, and low CCAP reimbursement rates. This raises important initial questions about capacity and the ability to provide high-quality care to infants and toddlers.

The sparse distribution of providers creates what we call child care deserts. The Center for American Progress (CAP) defines a child care deserts as areas “with at least 30 children under the age of 5 and either no child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many children under age 5 as there are spaces in centers”; alternatively, a desert is an area with an insufficient supply of licensed child care. A child care center is a space regulated by the Division of Child Care, and it can take many forms depending upon the environment. In Kentucky, there are two main types:

  1. Center-based: this is your licensed type one care and it operates out of a non-residential building. This can be a church or a community center or an established child care facility.
  2. In-Home: this provision of care is either licensed type two, certified, or registered and is operated out of the educator’s home.

By using Census tract data, the Center for American Progress captured which zip codes are deserts in Kentucky. CAP data that reflect that 52% of white, 42% of Black, and 45% of Hispanic/Latino people in Kentucky reside in child care deserts. Furthermore, 1,370,155 people in rural areas reside in child care deserts.

To illustrate the gaps in care, we created two maps that reflect all available care in the state. Drawn from  February 2019 data available from the Division of Child Care, this map displays where all the licensed/certified/registered educators are in the state. As you can see, there are vast swaths of the state – a whole county, even – where there is no state-recognized child care provided.

For a more granular look at the lack of care in certain areas, consider this next map which identifies the provider availability and density by zip code. Those gray regions of the map represent entire zip codes where there is no available state-regulated care.

In this final map, we address the ratio of the number of children in a given county to the number of slots available. In this scale, anywhere from no children to three children is rated as a 1, three children to eight children is rated as a 2, and eight or more children is rated as a 3. For further clarification, everywhere a 1 appears on the map, there is one available slot for as many as three children in need of care. Where a 3 appears, more than eight children are vying for one available slot in a regulated child care facility.

How can Kentucky address this problem?

We have an obligation to invest in high-quality environments to ensure that children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. These investments have a significant positive impact on learning and the workforce – and produce huge returns for families and communities.  Even with recently announced increases in federal support for child care through the Child Care Development Block Grant, Kentucky must do more.  Do more by both increasing the eligibility level and investment in high-quality, full day early learning environments.  Additionally, communities must come together to support innovative delivery strategies – whether through partnerships between child care centers and public preschool or supports for entrepreneurs wanting to enter into child care.

With support from the Kellogg Foundation, the Prichard Committee in partnership with the state Division of Child Care, is working with several teams across the state – long time child care advocates and shared services providers – to increase access to in-home family child care for infants and toddlers , improve the quality of child care, and educate communities on the importance of the early years. As part of this work, we have also begun conducting research into the barriers potential child care providers face and strategies that can help ease the process by which someone can become in-home child care provider.

More to come on those barriers soon…


Sheryl is a graduate of Spelman College and has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation from University of Kentucky College of Education. Previously, she conducted research with the Evaluation Center, served on the International Hospitality Board, and interned with the International Scholar, all at University of Kentucky. Currently, Sheryl volunteers at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and assists in developing learning materials for Magic MakeHers, a learning tool for young girls.

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