Opinion: Invest in child care for working families

Rebecca Woitkowski is the Kids Count Policy Director at New Futures. Lindsay Hanson is the Senior Director of State & National Campaigns at Save the Children Action Network.

Ask almost any parent in New Hampshire with young children, and they will tell you their “child care story,”  their struggles with long waitlists, no availability, or rising costs.

It is a story that has only gotten worse in the last few years, and not just in New Hampshire. According to the Labor Department, there were 58,000 fewer daycare workers in the U.S. last month compared with February 2020, just before the pandemic began.

In fact, a recent survey of New Hampshire residents showed that 61% of mothers say that they, or someone they know, have had to miss work or not take a job because of a lack of child care. Nationally, nearly 1 in 4 parents reported being fired from their jobs due to the continuing breakdown of child care, reported ReadyNation in early February.

In that same report, ReadyNation found that the nation’s infant-toddler child care crisis now costs $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue each year.

Providing safe, quality child care in a child care center is expensive, and the crisis is multifaceted. A center’s primary source of income comes directly from families paying for care. Rising expenses for a center, like rent, food costs, supplies, and salaries, results in higher tuition for families.

The child care workforce, people dedicated to working with young children, are leaving in droves because they can no longer afford to live on low wages, in part due to the rising cost of living. In New Hampshire, the average child care worker earns less than $25,000 per year, $10,000 and $8,000 less than their peers in Massachusetts and Vermont, respectively.

A Concord father recently told us that his son’s child care center had a staff shortage over the summer that resulted in the closure of two classrooms. He expressed concern over what would have happened if that had been his son’s room, hypothesizing that he and his wife would have to patch together a system of grandparents, vacation and sick days to maintain employment.

New Hampshire offers child care scholarships for low-income families to offset the costs of care, but the process has complicated barriers. Families must secure a spot before applying for the scholarship, so they must make several payments out-of-pocket before the scholarship kicks in. A child care scholarship can help reduce the cost of care for a family, but it does not always guarantee access or affordability. Additionally, not all child care providers in the state accept the scholarship, meaning available spots are even harder to access for families who qualify.

Plus, the scholarship reimburses providers based on attendance rather than enrollment, meaning that if a child is sick and misses too many days, the scholarship will not cover costs and parents get charged more money. This is particularly burdensome for families working hourly jobs who not only miss a day of work to stay home with their sick child but also have to pay for child care they didn’t use that day. It is also not how traditional paying parents are treated. Only families on scholarship are penalized if their children are sick too often. The reality is that providers in the state simply do not charge scholarship families for missed days and instead eat the costs themselves.

Luckily, there is a bill in the New Hampshire Senate that aims to improve the child care system. SB 237 includes critical changes to the NH Child Care Scholarship Program by improving eligibility and reimbursement policies. More families will qualify, and the bill would ensure a more streamlined process. It would also expand eligibility to families who are pursuing college degrees. It also makes investments into the workforce that child care centers can use to offset recruitment and retention costs.

The recommendations in the Child Care for Working Families Act (SB 237) reflect the work of state leaders, stakeholders, and others who have been engaged in supporting the child care sector before, during, and after the height of the pandemic.

This bill is a comprehensive approach to stabilizing the child care system in our state. It is time for New Hampshire to invest in child care for working families.