Tens of millions of dollars in grants are now available to Maine child care providers. It’s a lot of money, and a worthy investment in an area central to the lives of so many Mainers – and the economy as a whole.

And it’s the first step in reforming an industry that right now works for no one.

The problems are not new. The high costs of providing labor-intensive child care mean parents pay a good chunk of their income even while facilities barely break even and employees get by on pay not much higher than minimum wage.

The COVID pandemic has only made matters worse. Some parents kept children home to protect them from the virus. Some child care workers made the same calculation for their own safety, or had to stay home themselves to watch their own children.

As a result, providers lost capacity, and thus the ability to earn enough money to keep going, even as supply chain woes raised their costs. A number of child care facilities closed, and those that remain open are often under capacity, and in any case struggling to get by.

For them, the $73 million in grants now available is some of the first good news in a long time.


Offered by the Mills administration with funding from the relief package passed by congressional Democrats in March, the grants can be used to lower the cost of care, make up for lost revenue and cover other qualifying COVID-related costs such as facility improvements, protective equipment and testing.

Importantly, grantees must also provide $200 monthly bonuses to staff members who work directly with children. The bonus is equal to a raise of about $1 per hour; the average hourly wage for child care workers in Maine is $13.84 an hour.

It’s not enough for people entrusted with such an important role. But it might be enough to stop so many workers from leaving the industry. And the other supports in the program should help stabilize child care providers for the next year, as the grants are intended to do.

But if the help stops there, it won’t be long before we’ll be back in a full-blown crisis, with families and providers both squeezed. That won’t be good for anyone.

If it wasn’t clear before COVID, child care providers make every other industry possible. They allow parents, particularly women, to work, free at least for a shift from the responsibilities of home.

When child care became a struggle during the pandemic, many women had no choice but to stay home, and workforce participation for Maine women fell to its lowest in 30 years. Without a safe, affordable place to send their kids, women were left unable to work, contributing in a big way to the widespread worker shortage.


“It’s the workforce that supports the workforce in this state,” a longtime former provider told the Press Herald. “Without child care, the entire economy in the state of Maine is going to crash.”

Gov. Mills’ program will help support the industry now in a critical time of need. Other improvements already in the works, such as a new effort to invest in and improve child care programs throughout the state, should help too. President Biden’s American Families Plan contains tens of billions of dollars for child care, but it faces significant political hurdles.

There’s no doubt more will be needed, and it will likely have to include significant long-term public investment to lower costs and raise quality. Without that commitment, parents will go broke finding care for their kids, while good people will continue to leave the industry.

Employers of all kinds will continue to have trouble finding workers. And we’ll all suffer the consequences.


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