UMN researchers create child care access tool

The tool maps child care by incorporating different variables like quality, cost and accessibility.

Daycare kids Henley Gorka and Max Finney pretend to be horses next to the sign-in table at the University of Minnesota Child Development Center on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in Minneapolis. Both have parents who work at the University.

Ellen Schmidt

Daycare kids Henley Gorka and Max Finney pretend to be horses next to the sign-in table at the University of Minnesota Child Development Center on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in Minneapolis. Both have parents who work at the University.

Farrah Mina

University of Minnesota economists recently launched an online tool that reveals how families’ access to child care varies statewide. 

The tool maps child care access in different neighborhoods and regions in Minnesota by incorporating a range of different variables including quality, quantity and cost of child care. It provides a comprehensive perspective on where child care in certain locations is thriving and where it can be improved.

“We really had in mind local community leaders … who may have some resources to devote toward increasing child care access in their community,” said Aaron Sojourner, a University of Minnesota economics professor and researcher on the project.

The tool, which launched last month, can help policy makers and community leaders make informed decisions about where to allocate child care resources. By engaging with it, they can determine not only what school districts need the most resources, but also whether they should direct their efforts toward improving quality, affordability or accessibility.

“This tool is built to help them diagnose the problem,” Sojourner said.

The researchers sought to map these different factors by exploring how they could use the lens of economic theory combined with data analytic techniques to build better measures of families’ access to child care services.

Susan Warfield, the program director at the University’s Student Parent Help Center, said she thinks the tool could help policy makers access grants and other funding opportunities. Having available data from the research can bolster requests for funding by demonstrating gaps, Warfield said. In order to show that a community is under-served, one needs to have the information to prove it, she added.

For advocacy groups like Think Small, a nonprofit that advocates for advancing child care and education, the new website can help find solutions to child care issues, said Cisa Keller, the Think Small senior vice president for early childhood quality development.

“We’re always using the most current research to be able to articulate a particular issue,” Keller said. “It’s a really helpful tool in our arsenal to describe what the child care desert looks like in Minnesota.” 

There have been similar tools that attempt to measure child care access in Minnesota, but they often do not show the whole picture, Sojourner said. Studying locations in isolation tends to erase distinctions between families and communities.

Sojourner said this can be especially misleading when making rural-urban comparisons. Although rural areas tend to offer cheaper child care than in cities, many in rural areas have to travel to get child care, meaning it is often less accessible.  

By integrating travel costs into the child care tool, Sojourner and his team seek to create a more accurate representation of child care accessibility.

“It’s a more realistic view, and let’s you incorporate a more realistic perspective. The whole premise of the measure is it to look at the market from the families’ perspective,” Sojourner said.