It has become more difficult over the past decade for a low-income, working family in Maine to find affordable child care.
Low- and moderate-income families can qualify for state-funded vouchers to help them defray the cost of child care, but it has become increasingly difficult in recent years for an eligible family to use this assistance. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of Maine child care providers accepting state-funded vouchers fell by more than 60 percent.
Over that same period, the number of children enrolled in child care with the help of a voucher fell by half. During an average month in federal fiscal year 2015, only 2,800 children were using child care vouchers, compared with 5,600 in 2007. Based on the most recent federal estimates, there are nearly 44,000 children in Maine who would qualify for vouchers based on their families’ income.
As the percentage of eligible Maine children receiving child care assistance hovers around 6 percent, the state has left money on the table in each of the past four years from a federal grant the state receives each year that’s earmarked specifically for child care assistance for low-income families. As of Sept. 30, 2016, the state had a $4.8 million balance in its Child Care and Development Fund account.
Maine has a child care access problem; it has some money available; and a handful of lawmakers this year have put forward legislation to address it.
Members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard recently from child care providers from across the state who turned out to support two bills that would raise the rates child care businesses receive when they agree to enroll a voucher-funded child.
Voucher payments in Maine had long been pegged to the 75th percentile of rates charged in the regional child care market, meaning the reimbursement rate was higher than what three-quarters of child care providers in the county charged. But in 2011, during Gov. Paul LePage’s first year in office, the Republican-controlled Legislature lowered reimbursements to the 50th percentile. Another set of rate changes that took effect last year resulted in pay cuts in most counties for child care providers who look after school-age children before and after school and during vacations.
When they agree to enroll a voucher-funded child, many child care providers are effectively agreeing to lose money in an already low-margin business in which the costs of providing high-quality child care are substantial. As a result, many child care facilities have stopped accepting vouchers altogether, while others have limited the number of voucher-funded kids they’ll take on.
The two bills before the Health and Human Services Committee — one sponsored by Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta and another sponsored by Democratic Sen. Nate Libby of Lewiston — would return the child care voucher reimbursement rate to the 75th percentile.
Another bill before the committee, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Rebecca Millett of South Portland, would resurrect a tool Maine used to use to ensure low-income children would have access to high-quality child care.
In 2007, Maine held contracts with 42 child care providers located across the state that agreed to take low-income children in exchange for a guaranteed payment from the state. The state started phasing out those arrangements the next year.
The state could use some of its federal child care voucher money to pay for contracts to ensure there are child care providers in high-need areas where they otherwise wouldn’t have an incentive to locate — in much of rural Maine, for example, or in other low-income areas. The state could also use contracts as a way to ensure child care is available for other children for whom options are often limited — in particular, infants and children with special needs.
There’s a lot that Maine could do, for which it has the money, to ease its child care access problem. After all, when parents can find safe, affordable child care, they’re in a better position to work and contribute to Maine’s economy.