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Mapping tool provides insight into child care needs

Researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities created childcareaccess.org to help people across Minnesota delve more deeply into the issues surrounding child care.

A screenshot from childcareaccess.org shows 2020 child care data in Carlton County
A screenshot from childcareaccess.org shows a map of the supply of child care providers in Carlton County using 2020 figures. The tool is designed to help communities across Minnesota start a conversation about how to address child care shortages.
Screenshot / childcareaccess.org
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CLOQUET — Researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities created a mapping tool that can help local officials and people interested in starting child care businesses pinpoint the areas with the greatest need.

How the child care shortfall affects Carlton County and what local officials are doing to address it

The tool, childcareaccess.org, launched in 2018, said Elizabeth Davis, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. It takes into account the number of licensed child care providers across the state, as well as the number of children who could attend a family or child care center. Davis worked on the project with colleague Aaron Sojourner, an associate professor at the Carlson School of Management; and Won Fy Lee and Jonathan Borowsky, U of M doctoral students.

“We wanted to look at where a family lives and how many providers of child care are close to them,” Davis said.

This family-centered approach takes into account the supply of child care providers, the quality of child care available, the number of young children in a given area, the cost of child care — both the rate a given provider charges, as well as how much it costs a family to transport their children to get care — and more.

One key thing to note is that the data has not been updated since 2020. Davis said that was done on purpose.

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The state of Minnesota allowed child care providers to close at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but they had the option to retain their licenses. This means that some providers still have their licenses but were or are closed. It could also mean that providers licensed for 50 children may only be serving 30 kids because they don’t have enough staff members to run at full capacity, Davis said.

“We were reluctant to put those numbers up (through July 2021) and have people say ‘Oh look, there’s lots of access here’ when there isn’t,” she said. “We’re hoping to update it a little bit later — I haven’t gotten the 2022 data yet, but sometime in the next six months I think it will be back to being a more accurate depiction of access.”

How to read the map

The map controls for supply of child care providers, cost and quality.

Elizabeth Davis
Elizabeth Davis, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
Contributed / Elizabeth Davis

It defaults to supply. Davis walked the Pine Journal through how to read the map based on that variable.

Red dots indicate families in that area have low access to child care providers, so if someone looks at the map and sees a clump of red dots clustered together, that could be an area where there would be enough demand to support a child care business, Davis said.

Similarly, blue dots on the map indicate a higher supply of child care providers.

However, Davis said the map doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

“So when I look at Carlton County on the map and just Carlton County, I see very many scattered red dots around the county and then a bunch of blue dots around Cloquet and some of the other towns,” Davis said. “What I would say is OK it looks to me like families live all over, but … the child care providers are concentrated in towns, and that might be because that’s where people go to work or some of them might be in the schools or closer to the school.

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“There’s a little group of red dots just north of Cloquet, suggesting there’s a group of families there with low access, so I would want to ask somebody who lives there ‘Is there low access?’ or do they just drive across the river and go into Cloquet and it’s fine … data’s not perfect. That’s why I think of it as a starting point,” she said.

The tool also provides a summary sheet comparing Carlton County to the rest of the state for access to child care, cost of care and quality. There is also one for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and tribal governments throughout the state.

Based on the 2020 data, the website shows Carlton County ranks 22nd on access, 31st for cost of care and third for quality. The overall access index is an equally weighted average of those three dimensions. For overall access, Carlton County ranks third in the state, according to the report.

Out of Minnesota’s 12 tribal governments, the Band ranks fifth for access, fourth for cost, third for quality and third in overall access.

But again, Davis stressed that the data may not be telling the whole story.

There could be families with a parent who have chosen to stay at home either because they want to or because child care costs are too prohibitive. Grandparents or other family members may also be able to help some families with child care, as well.

Cost in particular is tricky because while many child care providers in Greater Minnesota charge less than those in and around the Twin Cities, wages in those areas are also less, Davis said.

Carlton County also benefits from Head Start programs, which are high in quality, but only accessible to low-income families, Davis said.

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“So this is sort of saying the child care story in Carlton County is pretty good compared to the rest of the state. That’s all relative, because if things are bad in Carlton County then maybe they’re worse even elsewhere, or even within the county they’re worse for some families than others,” she said.

How to use the data

Davis said the website is meant to provide a starting point for local officials to gauge where the child care needs are in their communities.

She pointed to Carlton as an example of a place she would want to get more information about. On the map, it looks like there are several red dots around the city, which would indicate that there are enough children in need of care to support additional child care businesses.

“I think of it as the starting point for a conversation, not proof that there’s no access in Carlton (for example). Let’s go talk to people in Carlton and ask them if they’re having a hard time finding child care,” she said.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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