A funding shortage has caught up to a Waterville child care center, and just like that — poof! — nearly 30 slots for infants, toddlers and preschoolers may be gone.

The loss, even as small as it is in the grand scheme of things, would be difficult to absorb, highlighting just how tenuous the industry is. With so few affordable child care options available, every reduction in availability sends ripples through the economy and people’s lives, making worse a situation that is already taxing Maine families, and holding back growth.

The problem is, early childhood care is not available everywhere in the numbers it needs to be. And where it is, it is often very expensive — in Maine, the annual cost of child care is more than in-state tuition at a public university.

That forces families to make hard decisions — about whether and how much to work, about whether to have another child, even where to live.

Those decisions have huge implications for their lives — and for the Maine economy, which needs Mainers to take part in the workforce and have more children, and requires more young families to move here.

It is such a workforce issue that the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce has advocated for more affordable child care. “It’s an impediment to getting able-bodied people back into the workforce,” said president and CEO Kimberly Lindlof told the Morning Sentinel this week.

And it’s worst where young families are needed most. According to the Center for American Progress, just 23 percent of the state’s population has critically low access to child care — the lowest of any state. But that population is concentrated in the rural band that runs from Franklin County north and east to Washington and Aroostook counties.

Even outside of that band, the costs are enormous. Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, the child care center in Waterville, costs $320 per week, which it subsidized in many cases. Without additional funding to maintain those subsidies, many parents can’t afford it.

Home-based day care costs less, but is still a stretch.

Overall, child care in Maine accounts for 17 percent of median household income, when anything more than 10 percent is considered unaffordable.

Decades of underfunding at the state and federal level have gotten us here. Child care centers, understandably, are held to high standards that are costly to meet, even with the industry’s low wages. Without public subsidies, the cost is a stretch for most families — and debilitating for many others, particularly when they are spending so much already on housing and transportation.

Recently, Maine’s public response to the problem has been to lower standards.

Instead, Maine should get a handle on its child care challenges — where there are shortfalls, in availability and affordability, and for which ages. It should then direct resources toward those areas, considering both direct funding and tax credits, both for families and providers.

The state should also push for federal reform. One bill under consideration now would limit the percentage of income parents would pay for child care, among other changes. Another, from U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, would expand child care tax credits.

Maine needs productive workers and strong families. Both of those need safe, affordable child care, and that won’t happen by itself.


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