When parents need to work, they need child care for their young children.
When care isn’t available — because there are no slots left at the local child care center, because child care isn’t available outside of the traditional 9-to-5 work schedule or because it simply costs too much — parents face a dilemma.
Do they turn down that job offer to stay home with their young kids? Do they opt for part-time work instead of a full-time job that could advance their career? Do they ask their neighbor to look after their kids instead of enrolling them at the child care center with the structured curriculum, adults who are knowledgeable about child development and nutritious meals?
Put together, those decisions have a major economic impact. Some have called child care an “invisible” part of the economy — often overlooked for its importance to keeping the economy humming. And when child care presents an obstacle to parents’ gainful employment or when the cost is so daunting that it drains families’ disposable income, it becomes an invisible barrier to economic growth.
In Maine, 15 percent of parents with kids younger than 6 reported in 2011 and 2012 that child care issues affected their employment, according to the national KIDS COUNT data center. For lower income families, those with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, the effect was more pronounced: 18 percent of those parents said child care issues had affected their employment status.
There’s help available for parents with low and moderate incomes specifically so they can work. But Maine is failing to maximize the money it has available to ensure that parents of modest means who need to work have access to high-quality child care for their kids.
As the BDN’s Maine Focus team showed in a recent report, the number of children receiving child care assistance in an average month fell by half between 2007 and 2015. During an average month in 2015, just 2,800 Maine kids were enrolled in child care with the help of a state-funded child care voucher, out of about 44,000 kids who would be eligible based on their families’ incomes.
Over the same time period, the number of child care providers accepting state-funded vouchers as payment declined by 60 percent. Today, a parent who had made it through the complicated, multistep process of qualifying for a child care voucher can redeem it with only half the state’s licensed child care providers. And providers interviewed by the BDN who still accept vouchers say they accept fewer voucher-funded children today than they did a few years ago because voucher rates don’t come close to covering their costs.
At the same time as child care access has declined for the state’s lower income families, Maine has left millions of dollars in federal funds on the table. The state has ended each of the past four years with at least $4 million unspent from its annual allotment of money from the Child Care and Development Fund.
That’s money that the state could use to fund more child care vouchers — if only more parents knew the help were available. The state makes little effort to publicize the program, the BDN found.
It’s money the state could use to raise payment rates for child care providers so more providers could afford to accept voucher-funded children.
It’s also money the state could use to make sure that child care was more readily available in rural areas or other low-income communities where parents have few child care choices.
Today, if you need to enroll your infant in full-time care at a child care center, the average cost will be nearly $9,700 for the year — more than a year of in-state tuition at the University of Maine. And that figure masks differences depending on where in Maine you live, so the figure is often much higher.
Steep prices, coupled with millions of dollars in untapped resources, amount to a real access problem for Maine families with limited resources. It’s a problem the state could address — if only it had the will. And there would be a clear economic benefit to the state from enabling more parents to work.