When we talk about Maine’s workforce challenge, the conversation usually focuses on attracting people from away to move here and take the places of Mainers who retire.

But while bringing in newcomers is essential, more could be done to make sure that the working-age people who are here already have every opportunity possible to join the workforce.

One barrier to employment is a lack of child care.

According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, a lack of affordable, quality child care is keeping people home who could be in the workforce, building skills and earning more to support their families.

Even with subsidies, child care is expensive, whether it’s provided in a center or in a family day care setting. The Boston Fed calculated that a typical single parent in Maine would have to pay more than a third of their income in child care costs to be able to go to work. Center-based care can often cost more than $10,000 a year in Maine, and low-income wage earners told researchers that in order to meet work demands, they felt pressured to choose child care arrangements with which they were uncomfortable.

The lack of affordable child care options quickly moves from a household problem to one for the entire economy.

“The ramifications are huge,” said Marija Bingulac, a senior community development analyst with the Boston Fed. “We see it not only in forgoing employment opportunities, which are immediate. We see it in debt, we see in in having to pay the debt off – credit cards and (bad) credit scores.”

Bingulac, who appeared this week at a meeting in Brunswick that was covered by MainePublic, said the bank is surveying parents throughout New England to get a better picture of how the availability of child care affects their economic prospects. She presented preliminary findings at the meeting and plans to publish a report on the subject later this year.

According to the bank’s research, 65 percent of American children under the age of 5 come from households where all the parents are working outside the home, but that figure doesn’t tell the whole story. Access to child care can determine how many hours a parent can work, especially on nights and weekends, limiting their ability to earn more and advance. And since the responsibility for child care falls disproportionately on women, it contributes to a gender-based pay discrepancy.

That is born out by comparisons with international labor statistics. The Fed finds that countries with more family-friendly policies, including paid leave and universal child care, have a higher rate of workforce participation by women, and a lower pay differential, than the United States does.

Access to affordable, quality child care should be a matter of concern to all Mainers, whether they have young children at home or not. Unless we do a better job taking care of the youngest Mainers, we won’t be able to fend off economic decline as the oldest ones exit the workforce.

 


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