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The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, produces annual reports on child care access in each state. It found that 54% of Wisconsinites live in a child care desert.
An area of the state was labeled a desert if there were more than three children for one licensed child care facility slot in a given U.S. Census tract.
But, because of limits on data collection, the research doesn’t account for public school-sponsored day cares and care provided by family, friends and neighbors.
Nevertheless, researchers regard the methodology and its findings as reliable and reflective of the child care crisis facing Wisconsin and the United States.
Wisconsin families are facing a child care crisis.
During the worst of COVID, a wave of child care facilities closed, some for good, and Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs data indicates childcare employment is still recovering from the pandemic.
Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, a Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful, has taken up the pain felt by mothers across the state as she tries to appeal to working families.
"Fifty-four percent of Wisconsinites live in a child care desert, full-time daycare can cost as much as college tuition, and our country is the only industrialized nation without paid family leave," Godlewski wrote in a recent opinion piece in the CapTimes on May 8, 2022.
It’s true the U.S. does not guarantee parental leave. And multiple studies have found the average cost of daycare in Wisconsin can cost as much as in-state tuition at a University of Wisconsin school, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
But, that 54% figure sticks out and will be the focus of this fact-check: Do more than half of the state’s residents live without ready access to child care?
And what does the definition of a "child care desert" in the study cited by Godlewski include — and what does it leave out?
When asked for backup, Godlewski’s campaign pointed to research from Rasheed Malik, director of early childhood policy at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, which found 54% of Wisconsinites live in a childcare desert.
The Center for American Progress has produced regular reports on child care access in the United States and operates childcaredeserts.org, which displays child care access, or the lack thereof, as a heatmap of the United States.
Malik’s team compiled data on child care facilities in each state from regulators and then paired the information with U.S. Census tract-level data on the number of children in a specific geographic area. If there were there more than three children for each slot in a census tract for preschool children, a widely used threshold, it received a "desert" classification.
Malik said he views the figure as a conservative estimate, since some facilities may be licensed for more slots then they have the staff to support. That is, licensing for 60, but staffing for 40. In other words, the picture could be worse.
But the picture itself is a narrow one, and that creates limitations on what Godlewski and others can realistically glean from the data.
For instance, the approach does not take into account those who rely on child care through family, friends and neighbors. Such arrangements are not easily tracked. (And a 2013 census report indicated as much as one-third of preschool-age children received care through non-licensed providers.)
Likewise, the approach does not account for school-based programs, such as prekindergarten programs that have care before or after classes. That information was not included in the analysis because it is held by a different agency, if it is kept at all.
So, as both examples underline, the approach counts at least some children who already have care when it tallies how much care is needed in each area to avoid a desert designation.
At the same time, there are other nuances not captured by the data: For instance, there may be a need for child care in the evenings or during third shift and no licensed facilities open at those times. Likewise, most people live in one census tract and work in another — or, especially in densely populated areas, may be able to easily find care in a neighboring one.
Even if they do, the picture remains skewed.
Elizabeth Davis, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, said a gradient — instead of a numerical threshold — would better reflect nuances in child care access. But such an approach would be much harder to create, especially on a national level, given that states track and report data differently.
Experts we talked to said the limitations are understandable: The research is a bit of a patchwork because the nation’s child care system is a patchwork.
"These data points should be a jumping-off point for communities to discuss demand and supply issues," Davis said.
For our fact-checking purposes, Godlewski is accurately quoting a report — but she states research that has a host of limitations and caveats as a flat-out fact.
That’s problematic, since many listeners likely hear "child care desert" as no available care — not as "limited access when looking only at only one piece of the puzzle."
Godlewski said 54% of people in Wisconsin live in child care deserts, referencing studies from the progressive think tank Center for American Progress.
The study is recognized as one of the best available, but its methodology provides only a piece of the overall picture. And in distilling a complex, decentralized system into a neat, tidy percentage to tell a story, context and nuance are lost.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
Interview with Rasheed Malik, Center for American Progress director of early child hood policy, June 3, 2022
Interview with Elizabeth Davis, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, June 8, 2022
Interview with Max Luck, data specialist Supporting Families Together Association, June 9, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Finding child care isn't easy. Here's what the journey was like for these two Wisconsin families, Oct. 30, 2019
USA Today Network-Wisconsin, Wisconsin child care costs among highest in U.S., Dec. 13, 2014
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, COVID-19 pandemic has upended child care, from the decisions parents make to the operations of the businesses, Dec. 23, 2020
Appleton Post-Crescent, Ariens built a center in Brillion to provide subsidized daycare to employees. It's working., June 23, 2022
Economic Policy Institute, Child care costs in the United States, accessed June 17, 2022
The Capital Times, Opinion | More working moms would reset Senate priorities, May 8, 2022
ScienceDirect, Family-centered measures of access to early care and education, accessed May 23, 2022.
Center for American Progress, 2021 Wisconsin Early Learning factsheet, accessed May 23, 2022
Bipartisan Policy Center, Child Care in 35 States: What we know and don’t know, Oct. 26, 2020
University of Wisconsin-Madison Applied Population Lab, Geographic Access to Child Care in Wisconsin, Dec. 14, 2020
U.S. Census Bureau, Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011, April 2013.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National), July 12, 2022
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