Fact: One in four Hoosiers are under the age of 18


Nearly 1.6 million children lived in Indiana in 2017. Of those, a third (506,000) are 5 years of age and younger.

Indeed, the size of the preschool-age population will grow statewide over the coming years. However, growth will vary across the state.

Fact: More than 80,000 babies are born to Indiana mothers every year

Indiana has maintained a consistently robust number of births each year since the 1990s. Between 80,000 to 90,000 babies have been born every year between 1989 and 2016, with a peak of 89,719 in 2007, the year the Great Recession began.

Fact: Nearly 70% of married couples with children under 18 and 85% of single parents are in the labor force

Many of these children have parents who are in the labor force (i.e., working or actively looking for work). In fact, the majority of married couples with children are in the labor force (69%) and 85% of single parents are working or actively seeking work. 

The child care challenge

It is logical that most of these parents will, at some time, need child care outside the home—when their children aren’t yet school age and when they are in school needing before- or after-school care.

Indeed, one of the significant barriers for parents (and especially single parents) in getting and keeping a job can be the availability of child care and the availability of shift-worker child care, which includes care outside the more usual 6am-6pm Monday through Friday schedule.  With unemployment in Indiana at record lows, employers throughout the state are looking for more people to join or re-join the workforce. Having child care and early learning facilities within range of their home or work can be a deciding factor—Is “good” child care/early learning available?

With this study, we addressed the availability question by looking at child care/ early learning facilities.  We found a spectrum spanning from hubs to deserts. A hub is considered a census tract (a small area of geography within a county) with good ratio of children needing care to child care/early learning facilities with sufficient capacity.  A desert is considered a census tract with a deficit of child care spots compared to the number of children who may need them.

What is early learning?

Early learning has been identified at the federal and state levels (including Indiana) as programs that improve the educational and social outcomes for young children from birth through 3rd grade.

—U.S. Department of Education

The findings

The results of this study reveal those areas across Indiana and within counties that are child care deserts or are child care hubs or have something in between.

We used census tracts as the geography for two reasons:  they are smaller than a county (average size around 2,500 to 3,000 households) and provide a more localized view – especially when viewed on a map.  

The child care or early learning facilities and their locations included these types:

  • Child Care Centers – Program operated within a non-residential structure, typically a center-based program, either licensed or exempt-certified to accept CCDF vouchers.

  • Family Child Care Homes – Program operated in a residential structure, either licensed or exempt-certified to accept CCDF vouchers.

  • Child Care Ministry – Program operated by a church or religious ministry that is a religious organization exempt from federal income taxation under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.

The study and analysis also benefited from the considerable amount of annual census data (from the American Community Survey 5-year estimates) to make these determinations. Those data include important factors about working parents with children under 5, including whether both or “all” parents in the household work, their income levels, commuting patterns, and more. 

We also identified, using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on establishments, the high or low availability of jobs in the area—an important dimension since sometimes the choice is to use a facility close to work rather than closer to home.

We defined four distinct levels of capacity, which can be seen along a spectrum from desert to low capacity to moderate capacity to adequate-to-high capacity.

Indiana’s study included additional research dimensions (such as commuting patterns) to help refine the results to show a continuum of capacity. That is, not to solely focus on deserts, but to also show where there is moderate to high capacity, as well. In total, more than 1,500 census tracts in the state were identified along this spectrum. 

281 tracts

Level 1 – A child care hub

Areas with at least 1.5 child care spots for every child under age 5.

44,110 under 5

638 Tracts

Level 2 – Moderate capacity

Areas with a ratio of child care spots to children was between 0.33 and 1.49.

185,587 under 5

500 Tracts

Level 3 – Low capacity

Areas with more than 3 children for every child care spot BUT a small number of jobs and a relatively low share of children.

148,877 under 5

149 tracts

Level 4 – A child care desert

Areas where there are more than 3 children per spot AND a large number of jobs AND a high share of children.

41,336 under 5

The majority of Indiana census tracts are in the moderate-to-low capacity part of the spectrum—or more than 1,000. Only 281 tracts were identified as a hub—that is, an area with at least 1.5 child care spots for every child under age 5.

Where these deserts and hubs are located around the state is shown quite clearly in the interactive dashboard and map.

It is important to note that both hubs and deserts have relatively high numbers of jobs and children, with the only, and very stark difference being the availability of child care.

Marion County, the most populous county in the state, reveals an interesting pattern in terms of deserts, which primarily occur in the west and southwestern parts of the county, while the hubs are available right down the middle, as well as in the northeast.


Early Learning Indiana partnered with the Indiana University Business Research Center (IBRC) to study early learning and child care availability and capacity throughout Indiana. The IBRC reviewed multiple studies by other groups across the nation and honed in on a method that would not only identify so-called child care deserts, but look at the full spectrum of capacity, access, and need. This resulted in the four levels of access, from hubs to deserts and including a much broader set of inputs.

Our data sources included child care locations and capacity from Early Learning Indiana.  We geocoded each center to its corresponding census tract location. 

The American Community Survey data, a 5-year estimate released each year by the U.S. Census Bureau, provided data on income, employment status, family relationships for households with children by age of the child, and commuting patterns.

We analyzed the data based on the following criteria:

    • Determining the child care capacity status of census tracts, IBRC analysts started with the criteria used in the Mapping America’s Child Care Deserts study by the Center for American Progress (CAP)

    • CAP’s criteria creates two categories: “Desert” and “Not Desert.” A “Desert” is any census tract that is home to at least 50 children under the age of 5 and has a ratio of children to child care spots greater than 3-to-1. All other tracts are not a desert.

    • IBRC analysts determined that assessing the issue with only two categories of capacity status was too broad, since this simple categorization would fail to identify the areas that are likely to have the most significant child care shortages, as well as ignore tracts with highly concentrated child care capacity

    • Analysts decided to further separate the “Not a Desert” tracts into two groups: “Moderate Capacity” and “Child Care Hub.”

      • Moderate Capacity = tracts where the ratio between child care spots and the child population is between 0.33 and 1.49 

      • Child Care Hub = A census tract where there are at least 1.5 child care spots for every child

    • Analysts also split the original “Desert” category into two groups: “Low Capacity” and “Child Care Deserts.”

    • To create these groups, the IBRC focused on two indicators that are likely to influence child care demand: tracts with a high share of working parents and a large number of jobs.

    • Therefore, to be considered a “Child Care Desert,” a tract must meet the original CAP threshold of at least three children for each child care space, as well as both of the following criteria:

      • Working parents: In Indiana, all parents are part of the labor force in 67% of households that are home to children under age 6. A tract can be labeled a “desert” if it is at least 85% of this mark (i.e., 57% of households with all parents in the labor force)

      • Presence of jobs: Indiana’s ratio of labor force to jobs is 0.76. A tract can be labeled “desert” if that tract is at least 75% of this mark (i.e., a ratio of labor force to jobs in the tract of 0.57)

    • Tracts that meet the original CAP threshold of at least three children for each child care space, but do not meet these additional criteria are labeled “Low Capacity.”

    • For questions, contact datahelp@earlylearningindiana.org.