The irony isn’t lost on Katherine Johnston: an early childhood policy analyst quitting her full-time state job because even she couldn’t find affordable child care.

Three years earlier, Johnston had to call three dozen childcare providers before finding childcare for her firstborn, Margot, in a center 37 miles from her Hallowell home. She was already paying more than $1,000 a month for Margot’s care. A second bill like that would rival her mortgage payment, but she wanted to go back to work. But when the time came, Johnston couldn’t find any child care at all for her second daughter, Nora, leaving her no choice but to leave her job.

“Being a parent is hard, really hard, and especially hard in 2023, and it comes at a tremendous cost,” Johnston said. “In Maine today, the shortage of quality or frankly any child care is acute. … I often wonder how we got to this place where families with kids under 5 are on their own to figure this out. I hate to say it, but it’s kept me up more at night than my baby.”

Johnston was one of about 50 people who turned out Wednesday to urge lawmakers to support a proposal to overhaul Maine’s child care industry.

The bill, introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would tackle the state’s child care shortage by increasing monthly stipends for child care workers and relax the income limits for families to apply for a state child care subsidy. Jackson believes the extra pay would make it easier for child care providers to grow their workforce, and thus open up more child care slots for families like Johnston’s, and make that child care affordable for a larger group of Mainers than currently qualify.

“Maine’s child care system isn’t working for anyone, not parents, providers or businesses,” Jackson said. “The failure to value and prioritize child care providers and workers – the workforce behind the workforce that keeps our families, communities and economy running – is finally catching up to us. For the sake of our families, community and economy, the Legislature must take action.”


Parents are struggling to find child care because the number of licensed providers has shrunk by 18.5% over the last decade, from 1,860 in 2013 to 1,516 today, according to state data. Because of chronic workforce shortages, those that remain open have had to decrease the number of children they can accept, or the hours of care each child can receive.


But critics say Jackson’s proposal is a waste of taxpayer dollars that fails to address the root problem: excessive government regulation that drives up the cost of doing business in Maine.

Christelle Inyaya holds Eliel Azanga in the infant room at the Youth and Family Outreach daycare center in Portland in March 2022. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Child care is a business and functions like many other industries,” said Nick Murray, director of policy at the conservative Maine Policy Institute. “When the government raises costs for providers through licensing, enforcing subjective ‘quality’ of care and incessant department rulemaking on every minute aspect of the business, the number of folks who can stay profitable drops. When this happens, families lose out most.”

The bill, L.D. 1726, would double the monthly child care worker stipend to $400. Gov. Janet Mills included $7.8 million in her budget to continue the current $200 child care worker stipend, which was started last year on an emergency basis, and Mills has said she wants to make it permanent. Starting this summer, teachers with advanced degrees will get higher stipends, but an exact amount hasn’t been determined. Still, many child care workers do not earn enough to pay their bills, much less pay for their own child care, Jackson said.

His bill also would increase the child care subsidy’s maximum qualifying family income from 85% of the median state income to 125%. Based on current state guidelines, that increases the maximum qualifying income for a family of four from about $84,000 to about $123,600. The state Office of Child and Family Services estimates that the eligibility expansion would allow more than 1,100 additional Maine families to qualify for a state child care subsidy.


But many child care providers do not accept the state subsidy – about half of center-based child care providers and fewer than a third of all home-based child care providers accept families who rely on subsidies to pay their tuition. That is because the state subsidy does not pay a child care provider’s full tuition price – it covers only 75% of the countywide average tuition. The current program is also strict about attendance – there is no payment to child care providers for those days when a subsidized child is absent.

Many providers with long waiting lists of families willing to pay full price say the paperwork, payment delays and docked payment when a child is out make the subsidy a costly hassle.

The three-hour hearing drew impassioned testimony. Desperate parents like Johnston talked about cutting back their work hours or leaving work altogether because of a lack of child care. Child care operators talked about being stuck in a constant hiring loop, never able to pay their workers enough for them to compete with the bank, the big-box retailer or even the fast-food restaurant down the street. Child care workers talked about giving up jobs they love because they couldn’t earn enough to repay student loans.

“We are definitely underpaid,” said Jennifer LaChance, who runs a day care, Precious Moments, out of her Saco home. “We definitely are not doing this for the money. We are doing this for the kids, and so families can work, but I would think it would be fair to give us what we deserve because it’s definitely not an easy job. Some of us have bills.”


Many business groups endorsed the bill, too, saying that without child care they can’t keep their factories and shops running.


Mike Roughton of the Manufacturers Association of Maine told lawmakers that expanding access to child care is his organization’s greatest priority this legislative session. His members, which include large shops such as Bath Iron Works and small ones like Dovetail Bats in Shirley and Nichols Machine in Portland, know how important child care is to the more than 56,000 Mainers who earn a good living in manufacturing.

“The biggest challenge facing manufacturers in Maine is available workforce,” he said. “We believe the greatest hindrance of entry to the workforce is access to affordable, quality child care.”

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce came to the same conclusion after surveying its 1,300 members over the last three years, said Eamon Dundon, director of advocacy.

“The results were clear: A lack of child care is a significant impediment to hiring, training, and retaining employees and the current programs in place are insufficient to address this overwhelming need,” Dundon said. “Eighty-two percent of our members reported that their employees have trouble finding child care. … This translates into real business impediments that undermine our economic development efforts at the state and local levels.”

Jackson said the bill would cost $30 million to fund – an amount he told reporters during a midday news conference that he was sure could be found among the $294 million in additional revenue that state forecasters predict will come in over the next two years – but Todd Landry, the head of the state’s Office of Child and Family Services, told lawmakers that he is worried that Jackson has greatly underestimated the cost of such an expansive policy change.

Jackson only budgeted $3.7 million a year to cover the cost of the state child care subsidy eligibility expansion, for example, but Landry predicts it would cost closer to $15 million.

“The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and OCFS share the goals of this legislation: to increase the affordability of and access to child care in Maine,” Landry said. However, Landry went on to say that “OCFS is opposed to this bill because we estimate that its proposed funding would be inadequate for its purpose, creating expectations for families that it cannot meet.”

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