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The chasm between supply and potential demand for child care is so wide across much of Boston that in some neighborhoods, there aren’t enough seats for roughly half the children, according to a new report from the Boston Opportunity Agenda.
Only about one in four children under the age of 5 has access to high-quality programs, as defined under state and national standards, the report found. That shortage is most pronounced in Roslindale, West Roxbury, and Hyde Park, which lack high-quality slots for nine out of every 10 children, the report found.
The report from the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a public/private partnership focused on education, provides what child care advocates say is the first detailed picture of some of the most vexing challenges in the city’s early education and care programs.
“One of the biggest problems Boston has tried to solve is, how many children are we trying to serve? In some communities, they don’t even know, and are blaming each other” for gaps and surpluses, said Amy O’Leary, a director at Strategies for Children, a Massachusetts organization that advocates for high-quality early education programs.
The report found child-care shortages are most acute for children aged 2 and younger, with the biggest squeeze in East Boston, where there are only enough slots for 1 in 10 infants. The richest supply, researchers said, is in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, where the gap is less than half that size.
Early education programs are somewhat easier to find for children between 3 and 5 years old because of preschool and public kindergarten easing the care crunch. While gaps still exist in some Boston neighborhoods, the report found that there is actually a surplus of about 1,233 slots citywide.
But one problem is inescapable: the high cost of care. Federal guidelines define affordable care as care that costs no more than 10 percent of a family’s income. By that standard, the average cost of infant care is unaffordable for all neighborhoods in Boston, the report said. The percentage of income spent on child care in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill is just over 10 percent, compared with over 55 percent of the median family income in Roxbury and nearly 40 percent in East Boston.
“Child care in Boston affects everyone, no matter where you live, no matter your income bracket, no matter what you look like. It is not affordable for anybody, and it’s difficult to access,” said Kristin McSwain, executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda.
The organization’s researchers pooled local, state, and federal information from 2017, the most recent available, including census data, the number of child-care programs in each ZIP code, and the number of slots in each program. The data included family-based and center-based care, as well as programs in Boston Public Schools, and in charter, independent, and parochial schools.
But the researchers acknowledged they weren’t able to pinpoint how many parents in each neighborhood actually want care for their children, or how many who stay at home would return to the workforce if high quality, affordable care were an option.
Eyoda Williams, a 45-year-old Dorchester mother of six children, understands those complex, chaotic equations. When her son, now 11, needed care, she would scramble to get her older children ready for school, then trek from Dorchester to a center with an opening in Brighton that cost $300 weekly, then head on to Newton for work.
“Having kids is expensive,” said Williams, a personal trainer and fitness instructor. She just secured a hard-to-find preschool slot for her youngest child, who is 3 and has special needs. Before that, she’d relied on child care at the YMCA in Hyde Park, where Williams works part time.
“I wouldn’t be able to be here without that,” Williams said. “By the grace of God, it’s working.”
A recent survey by the City of Boston found that more than one-quarter of stay-at-home parents, the vast majority of them women, couldn’t work because they lacked day care. Nearly 60 percent of those parents cited cost as the biggest obstacle, and also found that parents of children under 2 had the hardest time finding available slots.
The challenges facing child-care providers are also daunting. They say they struggle to keep quality workers and provide decent wages, without making the cost of care unaffordable for families.
The size of the quality gap remains tough to gauge precisely. McSwain, who directed the report, said up to 30 percent of the programs in the city don’t even seek state accreditation because it’s so complicated and expensive. Programs that don’t accept state subsidies aren’t required to seek accreditation.
“So that’s 30 percent that we can’t say anything about their quality,” McSwain said. “They may be really high-quality, and we may be 30 percent better off than we think we are.”
Bill Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, the industry’s trade association, said many programs are high-quality, and the $80 million invested by lawmakers over the last several years to boost low-paid workers’ wages has helped retain more — and better — employees.
“The key to quality is having a workforce that is consistent,” Eddy said.
Dr. Michael Yogman, a Cambridge pediatrician who chairs the child mental health task force for the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said such stable relationships in day care is critical for children’s development.
“The quality of the teacher is probably the most important thing,” he said. “Those kids will do better in kindergarten, and be more literate in third grade, assuming the quality programs continue.”
The report made several recommendations, including a call to create stronger partnerships among providers, the city, and various agencies and nonprofits. Those partnerships would be able to collect more detailed data that could more finely pinpoint actual demand by neighborhoods.
It also suggested businesses work more closely with providers to subsidize some slots for employees’ children. This, the report said, could create consistent care options for workers, while also providing steadier revenue for child-care facilities.