Editorial: Nurturing a child care industry vital for success

  • Jack Hutnick, 3, left, and Anya Labrie, 3, dig in the dirt while their class plays outside at Ready Set Grow in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Published: 4/17/2022 6:01:35 AM
Modified: 4/17/2022 6:00:17 AM

It would be unseemly to ascribe a silver lining to anything as deadly as the COVID-19 pandemic, but the havoc it wrought has undeniably lent urgency to addressing long-standing social and economic problems, prominent among them the nation’s acute lack of high-quality, affordable child care.

As many Upper Valley parents can attest, finding the right kind of child care that they could afford was beyond challenging even before the pandemic hit. When it did, many people found themselves needing to stay home from work to care for their children; rearrange work schedules with a spouse to provide coverage; or enlist family members to help out.

The critical shortage of workers the economy is currently experiencing results at least in part from the fact that potentially productive employees remain sidelined by the lack of child care.

The human resources director for Sturm, Ruger & Co., the firearms maker in Newport, told the New Hampshire Bulletin late last year that while the company had been able to hire 100 new employees in 2021, it missed out on 40 strong candidates who turned down job offers when they realized that finding child care would be next to impossible.

The economic effects on families are just as pronounced. Paying $20,000 or $25,000 a year for child care puts a big dent in even a healthy income. And, of course, that is to say nothing of the potential delay in social and educational development for kids missing out on skillfully delivered child care.

It is estimated that Vermont needs almost 9,000 more spaces for young children than are available; prior to the pandemic, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services estimated that the 34,000 licensed child care spots for children under 6 represented only 60% of the number needed. While the number of licensed spots in New Hampshire has increased since then, experts note that not all those spots might be available because of staffing shortages or other issues experienced by providers.

There is even bipartisan agreement in Congress — we are tempted to insert an exclamation point here — on the need to bolster the system. Democrats and Republicans agree on some elements of an enlightened child care policy, The New York Times reported last week. They include: Providing parents with choice among different settings, such as home-based care or private centers; offering year-round care, including for parents who don’t work traditional shifts; capping child care tuition at 7% of income for eligible families, while covering the cost fully for the most impoverished parents; bolstering educational opportunities for child care workers; and investing in the opening of new facilities and the renovation and upgrading of existing ones.

That’s mildly encouraging, but our advice is not to hold your breath waiting for the feds to solve this. There are major differences between the parties on the scope of the policy and how it should be paid for.

Closer to home, there are some promising efforts that could be emulated. The city of Lebanon, for example, offers child care stipends to attract and retain employees; the Kendal at Hanover retirement community has provided on-site child care for employees since it opened 30 years ago; both the city of Lebanon and Sturm, Ruger & Co. say they are offering employees flexibility in scheduling to help them cover child care responsibilities. The Upper Valley nonprofit Vital Communities has targeted child care as a focus in its economic development efforts.

The supply side of the equation, though, depends on the availability of qualified child care workers. The legislatures in both states need to pay special attention to the recruitment and training of them.

As with so much vital and demanding work in America that is performed largely by women, child care is undervalued and underpaid. The median hourly pay for child care workers nationally is a meager $12. Simply put, until the pay gets significantly better, neither will availability, affordability or quality.

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