Heather Marden, upper right, co-executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, plays with students at Seedlings to Sunflowers in Gorham on Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

New state investment in child care has given some who work in the long-struggling industry hope they will be able to survive.

Child care providers in Maine have been hanging on by the skin of their teeth for years, challenged by high demand for services that increases the need to hire and retain staff, which in turn pressures them to raise prices so they can cover expenses and pay and recruit workers. Others, unable to break even, have closed their doors, leaving parents with fewer options.

But over the past few years, Maine has invested significant funds in the industry by expanding eligibility for child care subsidies and helping providers pay their employees higher wages by offering salary supplements.

In 2021, Maine began providing monthly $200 stipends per worker. In January, the state agreed to bump those up to between $275 and $625 a month, depending on age and experience.

The impact of that aid has been significant.

As of April, 7,471 child care workers were receiving those supplements, according to the state Office of Child and Family Services.


Camelia Babson-Haley, director of the nonprofit child care center Youth and Family Outreach in Portland, said the payments have allowed them to hire and retain skilled staff, keep tuition down and continue to serve low-income families. She has raised the center’s minimum hourly rate from $12 to $16 an hour, and pays as much as $28.

“We can breathe a little easier when our budget is not so tight that we’re always wondering how many more years we can do this,” Babson-Haley said.

Preschooler Sybil Demers assembles puzzles at Seedlings to Sunflowers in Gorham. State money has helped the struggling child care industry stay afloat. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The average wage for child care workers in Maine is $16.42 an hour, or $34,150 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the average annual cost of child care in Maine is $11,960, according to ReadyNation, a national workforce organization.

Meghann Carrasco, the executive director and founder of Seedlings to Sunflowers, a nonprofit child care and family center in Gorham, said she has now raised her hourly rates from around $13 to $18-$20.

“We are so grateful that the state is taking the collapse of the early childhood sector seriously,” Carrasco said. “But we need to continue working as a collective here in Maine to build our child care infrastructure back up.”

Low pay for early childhood workers means those workers don’t often stay long in the field, while high costs mean parents sometimes have to leave the workforce rather than pay for child care.


Those who spoke with the Press Herald said that although they’re glad to see the state investing in the industry now, it’s disheartening that it took reaching a crisis for it to happen.

“We want to celebrate the support we’re receiving and be honest about how neglected this industry has been for so long,” said Heather Marden, the co-executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.

Meghann Carrasco, executive director and founder of Seedlings to Sunflowers, interacts with students at the Gorham facility on Wednesday. The state has started paying child care workers in Maine between $275 and $625 in monthly stipends, depending on experience. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In 2021, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that “child care is a textbook example of a broken market,” noting the lack of supply, affordability, poverty-level wages common in the industry and “razor-thin” margins that child cares operate on.

As the pandemic hit and inflation skyrocketed, that market further crumbled. In Maine and around the country, child care facilities closed down classrooms, shuttered operations and raised prices.

The challenges facing the child care industry “became critical enough that they could no longer be ignored,” said University of Maine Farmington professor of early education Donna Karno.

In recent years, the state has provided funding to the child care industry so it could recover from COVID-19, open new facilities and expand existing ones.


Preschooler Maxwell Chasse plays with interlocking blocks Wednesday. The state has increased the amount it will pay for full-time child care for kids who qualify for funding based on their family’s income, between $180 and $330 a month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It has also increased the amount it will pay for child care for kids who qualify for funding based on their family’s income. Maine also expanded which children are eligible, allowing those whose families earn up to 125% of the state’s median income to qualify. The state pays between $180 and $330, depending on age and county, to attend child care full time.

At Youth and Family Outreach, about 40% of families pay out of pocket for child care, and they spend $330 to $385 a week per child depending on age, or around $20,020 a year. The other 60% of enrolled children pay $214 to $330 a week, which comes out to between $11,128 and $17,172 annually.

Babson-Haley, who has been in the child care field for 35 years, said the industry is in the toughest spot she’s ever seen it.

She said the long-running issue of being stuck between a financial rock and hard place – struggling to balance the need to raise wages to hire and retain quality employees, and to keep rates down for parents already shelling out a significant amount of money for child care – remains.

She and many others say the industry must keep moving forward.

“There is ongoing work to do to ensure we stabilize the child care industry,” said Ana Hicks, human services policy director in the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. “We want to make sure we are supporting child care in the state in a way that increases access and affordability to high-quality early education.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: