It took a pandemic, but the last year has really driven home the importance of child care.

Gabriel McCarthy, 4, hugs his mother, Carolyn Courtney, as he and his twin brother, Cormac, far left, are dropped off at Bouncing Bubbles Child Care in Skowhegan. Because so few child care slots are available now, some parents drive 45 minutes each way to bring their children to and from Bouncing Bubbles, owner Chrissie Davis says. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The widespread shutdowns last spring put many low-income workers out of work. But even when most businesses reopened, a lot of workers couldn’t return – with many schools and day cares closed, they had to stay home to take care of their kids.

If you hadn’t realized it before, it became very clear that lack of access to child care not only puts families in a bind but also holds back our economy. It makes it more difficult for both children and their parents to meet their potential, particularly in places like rural Maine.

That’s true now, and it’ll be true after the pandemic is a thing of the past. If we want to help families succeed, and the economy truly benefit everyone, high-quality child care should be available for everyone who needs it.

Right now, that clearly isn’t the case. Nearly everywhere, parents struggle to find the right child care situation for their family.

The first problem is the high cost of child care. In Maine, as elsewhere, the average annual cost of child care is more than a year of in-state college tuition – it’s nearly 17 percent of median income, when anything over 10 percent is considered unaffordable. For single parents, it averages a full third of their income.

And that’s if you can find it. According to a report from the Council for a Strong America, the number of child care providers in Maine has dropped 28 percent in the last decade. Twenty-two percent of Mainers live in an area where there are more than three kids under 5 for every approved child care slot. In rural Maine, it’s even harder to find a slot.

The stress this places on families cannot be overstated. One child care provider in Skowhegan recently told Taylor Abbott at the Morning Sentinel that parents drive 45 minutes each way so she can provide child care for their youngsters, putting strain on their job and family life.

Others have to settle for whatever provider they can find so they can go to work, leaving them to wonder all day if their child is getting the attention and care they need at such an early age.

Those who ultimately can’t find a provider are forced to limit their work hours or drop out of the workforce altogether.

The lack of child care providers should be attacked from all sides. Low-income families need additional support, such as through tax credits, in order to keep child care affordable. Providers themselves need additional funding in order to raise wages to draw more people to the industry and maintain knowledgeable, dedicated staff.

Programs such as preschool and Head Start should be expanded to serve more children. Initiatives like Elevate Maine/Somerset, a public-private partnership that expands birth-through-kindergarten care in Somerset County, is one model for how to get more child care in rural areas.

Maine itself can take steps to improve child care, but the size and scope of the problem demand a federal response. President Biden’s child care plan includes many of the ideas above, and all should be on the table as lawmakers address this problem.

And address it they must. The lack of high-quality child care is slowing the cognitive and emotional development of children, and it’s stressing out parents. It’s holding back families and the economy as a whole.

If 2020 was when everyone realized how central child care is to our lives, then 2021 should be the year we make it better for all Americans.


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