Childcare deserts & oases: How accessible is childcare in Australia?

More than nine million Australians live in an area where there are insufficient childcare places for families, according to our comprehensive analysis.
Tuesday 22 March 2022

Access to quality childcare is increasingly critical to Australian children, families and the economy. In the first research of its kind in Australia, the Mitchell Institute has examined access to childcare in over 50,000 neighbourhoods across the country.

The report Deserts and Oasis: How accessible is childcare in Australia (BIN, 1.95 MB) found that when it comes to access to childcare, where you live matters.

About nine million Australians, 35% of the population, live in neighbourhoods we classify as a childcare desert. A childcare desert is a populated area where there are more than three children per childcare place, or less than 0.333 places per child aged four or under.

This is where childcare access is most scarce and there are deserts in all states and territories, and in all capital cities.

The interactive map below shows the spatial accessibility of childcare across Australia. The areas in orange and red indicate childcare deserts. Areas of yellow and green indicate where there is greater relatively supply.

The above map shows childcare access by suburb. Our approach means there is even more detail on childcare access by neighbourhood. Explore childcare access where you live and in neighbourhoods across Australia.

Why & how did we undertake the research?

Many anecdotal reports suggest Australian families are having difficulty finding appropriate childcare services; however, there is limited research exploring the extent of the problem in Australia.

Our research aims to help to fill this gap by drawing on approaches in the international early learning research literature.

We focused on one type of childcare, centre-based day care (often just called day care or childcare), which is subsidised by the Commonwealth Child Care Subsidy and is the service most used by children and families.

To start, we looked at supply and demand for childcare. To measure supply, we gathered information on how many centre-based childcare places are available across the country and where they are located. We compared the supply to the potential demand – how many children live in each neighbourhood.

We then used spatial measurement techniques to map the relative accessibility of childcare in Australia, showing where there are childcare deserts.

Deserts are more likely to be in regional areas

The results of the research are stark. As the table below shows, Australians living outside of major cities are more likely to be living in an area we classify as a childcare desert.

In rural and regional areas, childcare deserts may mean a total absence of services, or it may mean there are too few places available to meet the potential demand. The impact of this means families may need to travel a lot further to access childcare.

About 1.1 million Australians live in regional and remote areas where there is no childcare available at all.

Childcare deserts are an issue in metropolitan areas too. More than 5.3 million Australians who live in major cities, or about 29%, are in areas we classify as childcare deserts.

Families living in deserts in major cities may still be able to access childcare, but they may have to travel further or may face more competition for available places. In these neighbourhoods, childcare deserts indicate relatively low levels of spatial accessibility to childcare, but because of the greater number of providers, there are more possibilities to access childcare.

Areas of lower socioeconomic status have less access to childcare

High-quality early childhood education and care enables children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, to succeed later in life.

To examine how childcare access varies by socioeconomic status, we examined the relationship between the availability of childcare and the Index of Relative Socio-Economic Advantage and Disadvantage (IRSAD).

IRSAD is a measure that summarises information about the economic and social conditions of people and households within an area - including both relative advantage and disadvantage indicators.

The figure below shows the results of our analysis. Neighbourhoods in the first socioeconomic decile have the highest disadvantage and lowest advantage. Neighbourhoods in the 10th socioeconomic decile have the lowest disadvantage and the highest advantage.

The figure shows the median, along with the 25th and 75th percentile, for each socioeconomic decile. 

For neighbourhoods in the lower 60% of socioeconomic status, the median childcare accessibility is around 0.35 to 0.37 places per child.

From the seventh decile upwards, the top 40% of neighbourhoods by socioeconomic status, as advantage increases so does the median number of childcare places available per child.

Neighbourhoods in the 10% of advantaged areas have the best access to childcare at 0.46 places per child.

This suggests that, overall, children and families who would benefit most from high-quality childcare have the least access.

There is greater access where there are higher fees

Part of the reason for this may be the design of the system where the underlying principles of the childcare system encourage providers to go where there is the lowest risk and the greatest reward.

One way of illustrating this is to explore the correlation between price and accessibility.

The figure below shows the relationship between the median cost per hour of childcare and the average childcare places per child in the five major capital cities with a population over one million people.

Each dot is a region that represents a population of between 30,000 to 180,000 people. The horizontal axis shows the mean fee per hour and the vertical axis shows the average childcare places per child in each region.

This figure highlights how areas with the greatest supply of childcare are also areas where providers charge higher fees. This relationship is most noticeable when highlighting individual cities.

This figure suggests that there is an incentive for providers to operate in advantaged areas where they can charge higher fees, even if there is greater competition. This leaves more disadvantaged areas with lower levels of childcare accessibility.

Access to childcare & female workforce participation are linked

One of the many functions of childcare is to enable greater workforce participation, particularly for women.

The figure below shows there is a correlation between the accessibility of childcare and workforce participation of mothers with a child under aged under five years.

The regions  with lower access to childcare also have lower levels of workforce participation for women who have a child aged under five years. The inverse can also be seen – regions where more childcare places are available have higher female workforce participation.

The reasons for this association are complex. Lower levels of female workforce participation in an area will affect demand for childcare. However, difficulty in accessing childcare may be leading to parents and carers choosing not to participate in the workforce while their children are young.

Investing in Australia’s early childhood education & care sector

Access to quality childcare has enormous impacts on the current and future lives of Australians. Yet our research shows that current policy settings mean that where Australians live still plays a significant role in whether they can access this crucial service.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Research from Victoria University’s Centre of Policy Studies shows that investment in childcare almost pays for itself, largely due to higher workforce participation. Other research highlights how Australia can get the most out of childcare by making it more affordable, reforming parental leave and better linking the early learning sector to the health system.

Australians deserve much better access to childcare and a system that supports families to make the decisions they believe is best for them. Most importantly, children need a system that meets their needs so that they can have the best start in life, regardless of where they live or the income of their parents.

Explore interactive maps covering more than 50,000 neighbourhoods across Australia.

Download the report Deserts and Oasis: How accessible is childcare in Australia (BIN, 1.95 MB)