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Massachusetts child care workers earn about $10,000 more a year than their New Hampshire peers. It’s a parent’s gross income, not what’s left after paying the mortgage, food, and other bills that determines their eligibility for child care assistance. Good luck trying to find infant care.
Those are a few of hurdles the House’s new Special Committee on Childcare heard about Wednesday as it began work on a gargantuan challenge: improving access to affordable quality child care in the state.
“It’s a crisis. So we’ll start off with that,” said Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican and the chairman of the committee, who owns a child care center in Epsom. “I’ve had grown men and women crying in my office because they don’t know how they’re going to pay for child care. I see the problems from the business side of it but also the human side of it as well. The child care situation in the state is horrible.”
Don’t expect a quick fix.
There are at least three bills this session addressing the state’s child care shortage but none are currently before this committee. And the committee won’t propose any of its own legislation this year, Berry said.
Instead, he expects the committee will use this year to hear from state officials, advocacy groups, child care providers, and others about the shortcomings of the existing system and ideas for mitigating those challenges. The bills will come next year, he said, and be informed by what the committee hears.
In an interview prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Berry said he expects bipartisan and partisan bills to emerge. Members will examine a wide range of issues, from how the state licenses and regulates child care centers to expanding infant care and ensuring students who have children have the support to graduate.
Amanda Sears, director of the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, has been part of the affordable accessible child care conversation for a while. She’s seen bills come and go and new ideas get discarded.
She said she left Wednesday’s committee meeting hopeful, even knowing members will not propose legislation this year.
“There has been an awful lot of study, at least outside the Legislature, about the problems. If the Legislature needs to come up to speed on those problems, that is understandable,” she said. “But there isn’t a lot of missing information about the scale, scope, or causes of the problem. There is a lack of commitment for the solution. If this committee can build that momentum, that would be a great outcome.”
Up first was the state’s child care scholarship, a federally funded program that helps low-income families afford child care.
To qualify, children must be under 13 and parents must be working, looking for work, or attending school or training. Parents must also meet eligibility guidelines, which is an annual gross income up to 220% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $50,566 a year. The amount of assistance increases as income declines.
Debra Nelson, director and chief of the state’s Bureau of Child Development and Head Start Collaboration, told the committee of the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed increasing those income caps to allow more families to qualify.
Berry told Nelson determining eligibility on gross income, a federal rule, eliminates people who run small businesses and net far less than they take in.
Nelson addressed a second major concern with the scholarship fund. Children who miss too many days lose their assistance, even if they are in the hospital or are out because of a disability or chronic illness. The child care center then bills the family to cover the lost state assistance.
Nelson said her agency has asked Gov. Chris Sununu for an additional $5.7 million to pay providers differently to address those situations.
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat who ran a day care center for many years, said she frequently saw cases where families lost their assistance over absences and couldn’t afford to remain in child care.
“You wouldn’t imagine public schools to be in a situation where you only pay for children when they came,” she said. “I mean, public schools couldn’t do that. So I think it’s a policy that is certainly long overdue, and really needed, with caveats.”
Those caveats could include a more generous limit on the number or permitted absences.
Committee members also heard about the significant gaps in what child care workers earn compared to counterparts in neighboring states and peers working in schools.
Sarah Vanderhoof, child development director at Southern New Hampshire Services, said Massachusetts is not alone in paying child care workers significantly more money. Vermont averages about $8,460 more a year, while Maine pays about $6,500 more.
Her agency offers scholarships and apprenticeship programs to recruit and train workers. But retaining them can be hard, she said.
“We recently lost a teacher who went to go check in people in a kiosk at a car dealership and is making twice as much,” she said.
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