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For the Sake of Working Families, New Hampshire Must Make Child Care Investments | Opinion

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by Rebecca Woitkowski, New Hampshire Bulletin

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 U.S. Department of Labor, there were 58,000 fewer day care workers in the U.S. last month compared with February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In New Hampshire, a recent survey of Granite State residents showed that 61 percent 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, a national business member organization, 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, result 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 less than their peers in Massachusetts, and $8,000 less than Vermont. 

In New Hampshire’s Upper Valley, a 30-year veteran of the child care industry recently shared that she commutes 72 miles to work because, on her salary, she can’t afford housing closer to her job. She noted that many of her coworkers live with their parents or commute similar distances. She also added that she and her colleagues could earn more money in the fast-food industry. 

Despite the low wages, child care is just as unworkable for families, with its high cost and long wait lists.

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. 

A bill currently under consideration in the state Senate aims to improve New Hampshire’s child care system. The Child Care for Working Families Act, Senate Bill 237, includes changes to the N.H. Child Care Scholarship Program regarding 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 and make additional 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 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.  

It is time for New Hampshire to invest in child care for working families. 

This story was written by Rebecca Woitkowski and Lindsay Hanson, contributors to the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.