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Out Of Reach: Maine's Child Care Affordability Problem

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An infant sleeps at Parkside Children's Learning Center in Bangor in June 2019. (Kevin Bennett photo for Maine Public)

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Finding quality, affordable child care is a problem across Maine. For some parents, it's a financial hardship. For others, it means forgoing education or a better job to stay home with the kids.

Families aren't the only ones affected. Child care providers, workers and Maine employers are also feeling the pinch.

Maine Public's Deep Dive explores the difficulty of accessing affordable, high-quality child care, as well as possible solutions.

By Maine Public staff     June 24, 2019

Finding high-quality, affordable child care is a real struggle for parents throughout Maine. According to federal data from 2016, more than 68 percent of Maine kids younger than 6 live in households in which all parents are working. Even in parts of the state where there are more centers, getting a spot in one, and paying for it, create pressures that can influence when families decide to have children, how many to have or whether to have them at all.

Emilie and her partner, Ryan, who asked only to be identified by their first names, are attending a prenatal class in Portland. They and their classmates have come to learn more about giving birth — a process they will soon experience, as Emilie is due in five weeks.

With the help of the class, the couple has sorted out where and how they will welcome their child, but there's one glaring, unmet need.

"Thinking about the cost of child care is something that's pretty scary for us," Emilie says. "It is a huge expense and it will be a huge part of our budget and we'll have to make cuts in other places."

Child care stresses can have lasting effects on the careers of working parents and on the economy of Maine, and it's a problem parents, providers and policymakers have all been hard at work trying to solve.

Two incomes

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Emilie and Ryan are currently on five child care waitlists. Both eventually plan to return to work while their child is still an infant.

After some research, the couple says full-time infant care in Greater Portland costs in excess of $1,000 per month. Along with Emilie's student loans, and the home the couple bought just a year ago, Ryan says he and Emilie have little choice but to maintain both incomes.

Away from Portland, child care doesn't get much more affordable. Two hours up the road in Bangor, Abbie Strout-Bentes has learned that a spot finally became available in March for her son Oscar, who is almost a year old. But she says she and her husband raided their savings and are putting their dreams of homeownership on a back burner.

Abbie says the family can't save for Oscar's college education. It's not the only sacrifice that might be required.

"Even with two incomes, we could not afford to have two kids in day care at the same time," she says. "Planning how many years to have the kids apart or whether or not we have a second child … a lot of big decisions get made around the cost of child care."

Abbie says she's angry at being forced to make so many plans for her family around a single issue.

"People should be making decisions around their families based on what's right for their family and should be able to have access to resources needed to raise them," she says.

What makes child care so costly?

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Providers say high child care costs are driven by expectations, both from parents and the state.

Many modern parents demand that their child care centers provide more than a graham cracker and a nap — they want their kids to learn and develop under the care of trained teachers. Jane Purdy, who owns and operates Little Friends Early Learning Center in Freeport, says it's good that parents are demanding quality childhood education and development for their pre-K kids. To deliver that, she needs to find quality teachers and assistants and pay them well enough stick around.

But payroll is only one part of the picture — Purdy says there are also state safety standards and regulations governing drinking water quality, among other cost drivers.

Annual price of care in Maine, 2018 (in dollars)

Data from Maine DHHS

"Fire marshals, state expectations — those prices are going up. Insurance, worker's comp, and especially, most directly going up is the payroll." she says.

Another major cost driver is infant care, which comes with its own special set of demands. At Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland, Executive Director Lori Moses says the center actually loses money on infant care, charging parents $323 a week for a service that costs closer to $450.

Under state law, providers must have at least one teacher for every four infants, compared with preschool rooms where two teachers can watch over 15-18 children. The tuition from those older children is used to offset the higher cost of infant care.

'More than a UMaine tuition'

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Tara Williams of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children says many providers can't afford to shift costs between infants and older children.

"If their budgets are tight, the first thing they're going to do most likely is lower the number of infants they're serving, or not have any infants in their program at all," she says.

Williams says there are no good data to know the extent of the deficit of infant care in Maine, but the state has seen nearly 600 home care providers close over the past decade. And she says those that do accept infants charge about $10,000 a year.

"The average cost of infant care if you're going to a child care center is currently more than a UMaine tuition,” she says.

In Windham, expectant mom Sophia Cunningham and her boyfriend are preparing to spend a significant amount on child care.

"So basically, one of our incomes, which is mine, is going to be totally dedicated to child care,” she says.

According to DHHS, the average single parent in Maine pays 45% of their total income to put one infant in a child care center, and the average married couple 14% — those figures are slightly smaller for home-based providers.

Cunningham says she needs to keep her job to retain health insurance. But she also likes her work as a pastry chef. She decided the benefits of paying for child care outweigh the drawbacks. Now she just needs to find it.

"I don't like leaving things to chance. I like to have a game plan," she says, "especially when it comes to child care. When you're on your own, you can let some things slide. But this is another human being you're responsible for. I can't leave it in limbo."

Sophia Cunningham (left), in her baby’s room, and Tara Williams (right) of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. (Maine Public photos by Patty Wight and Rebecca Conley)

Sophia Cunningham (left), in her baby’s room, and Tara Williams (right) of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. (Maine Public photos by Patty Wight and Rebecca Conley)

With no family close by to fall back on, Cunningham says one plan might be for her and her boyfriend to adjust their schedules so they work opposite shifts.

'We have to address this'

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Related: Maine Calling On Child Care

We hear from Maine Public News editors and reporters, as well as from Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, about the issues covered in our Deep Dive on child care in Maine.

Click here for more

Some scholars say that the child care costs will have major societal effects if left unaddressed. Susan Gardner, director of women's gender and sexuality studies at the University of Maine, says that for the most part, solving the child care puzzle has been left up to families, and that has to change.

"We know our younger population is declining, we are the oldest state in the United States, and if we want to continue to bring in and maintain younger people in this area, we have to address this systematically and systemically," she says.

The big question is — how?

Maine Public reporters Jennifer Mitchell and Patty Wight contributed to this story. Maine Public Deep Dive Child Care debuted with an interview first aired in Morning Edition Friday, June 21. The broadcast version of Mitchell's piece first aired in Morning Edition Monday, June 24. The broadcast version of Wight’s piece first aired in All Things Considered Monday, June 24.