Anita McCurdy has raised her weekly rates five times in the 27 years she’s been working as a child care provider. She now charges parents $150 per week to watch over their children at her home in Machias, where she oversees 10 kids who range in age from six weeks to 7 years old.
“I’m one of the lowest priced [providers] around,” McCurdy said. She recently had to raise her rate to the current one to account for increasing oil and electricity prices and sanitation supplies.
McCurdy is also at capacity. She doesn’t anticipate a slot opening up until spring, making competition between parents fierce.
“In Down East, we are very short of child care,” she said. “I have a waiting list of at least 10, and some people have just not bothered to get on the list.”
Child care providers like McCurdy have to balance rising operating costs and paying staff with keeping prices affordable for working parents. They must also ensure they have enough staff to provide a certain quality of care and comply with state regulations. The already-thin profit margins providers operated on before the COVID-19 pandemic narrowed as parents withdrew children and public health protocols forced them to temporarily close.
Families often have trouble finding child care, especially as a few dozen Maine providers have closed permanently since the pandemic’s start. When they can secure care, it’s often families’ largest expense, with one report estimating annual costs for infants to be almost as much as state college tuition.
The $2.2 trillion Build Back Better Act pending in Congress would address some of those problems, and provide the largest government investment in child care since World War II. It has provisions to limit families’ spending on child care, boost child care employees’ wages and pay for universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.
But the bill still lacks specifics, its provisions don’t directly add to the constrained child care supply, and funding is dependent on whether states opt in. Some providers in Maine are worried about onerous regulations but excited at the prospect of federal help to address what some say is a child care market that doesn’t work.
“We have a lot of questions, but we’re hopeful,” said Chrissie Davis, owner of Bouncing Bubbles Child Care in Skowhegan and chair of the Family Child Care Association of Maine’s public policy committee.
A host of issues such as high turnover, poor compensation and workforce shortages have beset the child care industry for years, said Tara Williams, the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.
The Build Back Better bill’s combined $600 billion in tax credits for families with children, expanded child care subsidies and universal prekindergarten would be the “biggest investment and the most exciting thing to see happen for early care and education,” Williams said, with the intention of not only doing away with poverty wages, but also overhauling the standard child care business model.
“For all the existence of child care for the last 100 years, it has never been a stable workforce, because it hasn’t ever been a valued, well-compensated workforce in our country,” Williams said.
The average salary in Maine for child care staff is $29,770, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An overwhelming swath of the child care workforce nationally, 95 percent, are women, with 20 percent being women of color. Infant care in Maine costs $9,449 per year, almost as much as University of Maine in-state tuition.
While Maine has lost child care providers during the pandemic, the factors contributing to the current child care crisis were apparent decades before, Williams said.
“Child care and privately funded preschools have really struggled to be sustainable and to exist and have a strong stable workforce of early childhood educators,” Williams said. “It’s a system that is set up on the backs of parents of young children.”
Williams said qualified people end up leaving the field after only a few years because child care professionals make so little money.
If providers want to increase wages, the burden of the cost falls to parents. If they want to expand capacity and accept more kids, providers can’t count on a financial benefit, as they need to hire more staff to care for the additional children.
“Some people refer to it as a market failure, but it’s a market that doesn’t work,” Williams said. “In other places, supply and demand can make a market work, but in child care, it doesn’t.”
The Build Back Better Act would require states to provide, at a minimum, child care providers with a living wage, equivalent to elementary school educators with similar credentials and experience, in exchange for accepting the new funds.
However, the bill doesn’t specify what a living wage is, and there is no guidance on how to increase the supply of child care providers.
Davis of Bouncing Bubbles Child Care in Skowhegan said she was anxious to see what the state determined was a living wage, and what would be required of small-scale providers like her.
Davis had to cut her enrollment in half to six children when her assistant left to open her own care facility in June.
“Who determines what our rates will be and how much we will get paid? Will somebody else determine how much time we get off?” Davis said.
“We hear that providers are concerned about the regulation part of that, but on the other hand, we have providers that are very excited at the thought of finally getting some help and some recognition.”
For families, the legislation would cap child care costs at 7 percent of income for families making up to 250 percent of their state median income each year through an expanded subsidy program. Three- and 4-year-olds could attend free universal prekindergarten. A family of four making up to $69,197 in Maine would not have to pay any copay for child care, according to a calculator from the Hunt Institute, an education policy think tank.
Gov. Janet Mills’ administration supports the Build Back Better Act’s goals and is reviewing its provisions, according to Jackie Farwell, a Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson. The administration has directed funding from previous federal aid packages to help child care providers increase staff pay and cover coronavirus-related costs, eliminate co-pays for low-income families in the state’s child care subsidy program, and pay for upgrades to child care facilities and new prekindergarten programs.
McCurdy, the Machias care provider, said the bill would be more helpful to larger center-based providers, which had more staff and were more likely to be based in populated areas, than home-based providers like her, who were more likely to be in rural areas.
“It doesn’t matter how much money they give to the parents if the child care is not available,” she said.
Wendy Wagner Robeson, a senior research scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women, said that the Build Back Better Act’s stipulated wage increase would provide an incentive for people to join the field and stay in it.
The bill would grant states federal funding to train early childhood educators and help them earn degrees or receive other credentials. Those degrees, coupled with the guarantee of a livable wage, would encourage more people to both join the child care profession and stay in it, Robeson said.
Mary Lynn Hersey, the director of child development for Penquis, which runs child care and Head Start programs in the Bangor area, said the Build Back Better Act’s universal prekindergarten provisions would address twin issues of affordability and accessibility.
“The universal pre-K, or preschool for three and four year olds, despite income eligibility, will be a benefit to all including us because we have the opportunity to serve more children,” she said.
Cynthia Murphy, who heads the Child Care Business Lab at Coastal Enterprises Inc. in Brunswick, said she’s seen an uptick in the number of people interested in opening child care facilities during the pandemic.
The Child Care Business Lab pairs them with a business adviser and child care mentor who has been through the same process.
CEI plans for a new group of Child Care Business Lab participants in March, which Murphy hopes will increase the number of providers in Maine. The program is “business model agnostic,” Murphy said, so anyone from home-based providers to large daycare center owners can apply.
“There is no question that today there is an economic mismatch between what it costs to deliver quality care, and what parents can afford to pay,” Murphy said. “And so to the extent that the legislation and any knock-on regulations help remedy that, that would just be fantastic.”