Credit: George Danby

The most important investment we can make in a bright future for Maine is in our greatest asset — our children. We know that early experiences shape the architecture of the developing brain. We also know that 69 percent of children under the age of 6 live in households where all adults are working. That’s why investing in quality early care and education so that it is accessible and affordable for all families in Maine is essential to a healthy economy.

Many Maine parents face significant barriers in accessing affordable, quality care for their children. The implications are important for children, for families and for our economy.

Why?

Because when parents step back from the workforce because they can’t find or afford care, we undermine family financial stability, employers lose potential employees, and we all lose their contribution to the larger economy. When children don’t have access to the kinds of experiences that are foundational to their learning and development, we risk their well-being and their contributions to our future.

Maine can’t afford either of these outcomes.

The high cost of care is a significant burden for many families. According to a 2017 Child Care Aware study, center-based infant care can absorb 11.2 percent of the income for a married family in Maine with one child. And the financial hardship is even greater for single parents and low-income families. For a single parent with one child, the cost of care can absorb a staggering 39 percent of their income.

The annual cost of early care in Maine now rivals that of housing and college tuition. “Affordable” child care means it costs a family no more than 7 percent of their income, according to the Administration of Children and Families, a unit of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Using this standard, child care is affordable for a minority of Maine families, leaving most struggling to pay for care.

There is help available to pay the high costs of care for eligible parents through Maine’s Child Care Subsidy Program. Parents who are working, in school or in a job training program can receive a subsidy to help them pay for care if they meet income guidelines and pay a copayment. They must also find a provider willing to accept the child care subsidy.

Unfortunately, Maine has seen a significant decline in the number of providers willing to participate in the program following numerous program changes, including a cut to the provider payment rate in 2011. U.S. Office of Child Care data show the number of participating providers has dropped from 2,480 in 2006 to 1,089 in 2016.

In addition, many more families need support than are receiving it. To qualify for a subsidy requires a two-step process, and there is a lengthy wait time to learn of eligibility. This process may discourage parents from accepting a job when they can’t quickly know whether they can afford to pay for child care. In addition to fewer providers participating in the subsidy system, Maine has also seen a significant decline in the number of children served by the program from 5,400 in 2006 to 3,400 in 2016.

There are challenges in this system, but there are also clear solutions. Lawmakers recently passed LD 166, legislation that would increase the rate paid to providers who accept the subsidy. Increasing the payment rate should encourage more providers to participate in the child care subsidy system, with the result being that more parents will be able to access affordable child care.

This is only one step in what needs to be a comprehensive rebuilding of Maine’s system for early care and education to benefit not only parents, children and providers, but also our state as a whole. We’re counting on our elected leaders to act now on behalf of Maine’s children, families and economy.

Eliza Townsend is executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center, which collaborated with the Maine Children’s Alliance to produce the report “ Investing in Our Future: How Maine Can Prepare Our Children to Become Tomorrow’s Leaders” outlining recommendations to improve early care and education in Maine.

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