Isabelle Plante holds her daughter, Clover North, while posing for a family photo with her husband, Julian North, and son, Alden North. (Courtesy)
Clover, a 6-month-old infant with a pink bow on her head, spent May 2 at a Senate Finance Committee hearing with her mom, Isabelle Plante. Clover didn’t have much to say, but Plante was “fired up” about the lack of accessible child care in the state.
Plante, who was born in New Hampshire and moved back to the state to raise her children, says she and her husband are now “considering leaving because we can’t care for our kids.” For them, it’s not a matter of affording child care, a significant challenge for many families. They simply can’t find any.
When Clover was born, Plante called all the infant day care centers within an hour radius of her Center Harbor home and found no one who would even put Clover on a waitlist.
“I cannot go back to work because I don’t currently have care for her,” Plante said. The earliest she can get Clover into a center is November.
She’s not the only New Hampshire parent out of the workforce due to the child care shortage. Data from U.S. Census Bureau surveys show that between June 2022 and April 2023, 15,700 people, on average, said they weren’t working because they’re caring for a child at home.
Phil Sletten, research director at the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, told the Bulletin that while not all of those parents would necessarily enter the workforce if they could find child care, an influx of that many workers would be “a significant increase.”
It would also make up for the at least 15,000 more workers that NH Business and Industry Association President Mike Skelton told the Boston Globe the state needs.
So, why is child care so expensive and hard to come by, what are legislators doing to fix these problems, and where do we go from here?
The shifting child care landscape
Even before 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that New Hampshire was short as many as 21,000 child care spots.
The pandemic didn’t exactly help things. University of New Hampshire researcher Jess Carson said in a webinar last month that though New Hampshire “fared better than some other states” in the turmoil of the past few years, COVID-19 still had a big impact on child care providers and families.
According to Carson, even as total capacity in the state increased, the number of child care providers decreased by 8.4 percent. She said that’s because many smaller providers, especially in rural communities, have been lost.
And even where the number of licensed spots have gone up, Carson said, staffing shortages mean some of those spots still cannot be filled.
Jackie Cowell, executive director of the family and child care center advocacy group Early Learning NH, expressed the same concern.
“Over 30 percent of (child care) programs, we believe, have at least one classroom they’ve had to close down because … they don’t have the staff to run the classroom,” Cowell said in an interview, citing results from a recent survey of 186 child care programs in the state.
‘The workforce behind the workforce’
Attracting more workers isn’t as simple as raising wages.
Airole Warden, policy strategy manager for the Coös Coalition for Young Children and Families and program manager for the Coös County Director Network, a group of child care center directors, told the Bulletin that child care centers are “between a rock and a hard place.”
“The parents can’t pay more,” she said. “And the child care centers are not getting enough in revenue so that they can pay quality wages for professional work.” She said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that many child care workers can’t afford care for their own children, forcing them to stay home.
Warden described child care workers as “the essential workforce behind every workforce.” In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month, she relayed two instances in which chiefs in Coös County called child care centers, desperately looking for care so their new hires – two police officers and a firefighter – could start work.
When “you lose child care centers, you lose your police officers, your doctors, your snowplow guys” because they have to stay home with their kids, Warden explained in an interview.
She said she’d seen two child care centers that had been operating for over 30 years shut down in the past few months. She warned that without more funding, more closures may follow.
Funding for worker recruitment, retention
Warden and other advocates look to Senate Bill 237, a bill that would invest over $17 million in assistance to families and providers to increase the supply of affordable child care, as a vehicle for change.
SB 237 has seen widespread support in the Senate this session. According to Democratic Sen. Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, the bill’s prime sponsor, the Senate is poised to include all or most of it in their budget bill.
Multiple parts of SB 237 were already included in the House version of the budget, and when the Senate Finance Committee met Tuesday, members discussed incorporating some other pieces of the bill into their budget proposal.
Warden was at the May 2 Finance Committee hearing to urge them to do so.
One provision in SB 237 she is eager to see in the budget would create a funding mechanism to help child care centers give their employees bonuses, train them, and take other measures to both recruit and retain workers. On Tuesday, Senate Finance moved not to create a new fund, but to instead allocate $15 million for DHHS to use for a similar purpose in the coming fiscal year.
The bill also includes $1.25 million yearly in scholarships and funding for students studying early childhood education in the state community college system.
Whitley said in an interview that she’s concerned child care workers are “vastly underpaid and overstressed.” She said this funding would be a step toward encouraging workers to enter the child care industry and stay there.
Manchester Republican Rep. Ross Berry, who chairs the newly created House Special Committee on Childcare and runs a child care center in Epsom with his wife, told the Bulletin he’s glad to see attention paid to the child care shortage. But, he said, he has different ideas on how it should be addressed.
“I’m not just gonna sit back and be like, ‘We’re going to throw more money at child care centers.’ That is not gonna fix the problem,” Berry said.
Switching to ‘enrollment-based’ child care scholarships
Berry takes issue with one particular portion of SB 237 that would change the structure of the state child care scholarship fund.
Currently, families whose income falls at or below 220 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to enroll in government assistance for child care costs. But the state pays child care tuition only for the number of days each eligible student is in attendance at a center.
Warden described what that means in practice: “Let’s say (a child) show(s) up Monday and Tuesday but they’re sick Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” she said. “You’re still paying the teachers (for all five days, but) you’re not getting money for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”
She said this places a strain on centers that accept kids on scholarship. Whitley agreed. “Business-wise, there’s no stability for our child care centers that are already operating on a razor-thin margin,” she said.
Berry had a different view. While he also believes the enrollment model is in the best interest of his business, he said he worries that it won’t help increase the supply of child care.
“The child care provider side of me loves the enrollment model,” he said, because under that model, for a child care provider, you “know exactly how much you’re getting paid every week.” But, he said he worried about “waste” if the state was paying for days a student wasn’t in care.
Berry said he at least wants some guardrails, such as requiring a doctor’s note to prove a scholarship student’s absence due to sickness.
Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Jake Leon told the Bulletin his department did a pilot study last year and found that an enrollment-based model would both increase the number of centers that accept scholarship students and decrease the costs for parents.
Leon said DHHS would take actions to switch to that model, should the cost of that switch – which the department estimates at around $5.7 million – be approved in the final version of the budget.
Raising scholarship rates, broadening eligibility
Beyond changing the payment model, SB 237 would also increase the amount the state pays providers to care for each scholarship student.
Cowell says this change would “open up many more doors for families,” making it easier for them to secure a spot at a child care facility.
Warden said she hopes an increase in revenue would get centers closer to the point where they can “pay quality wages for professional work.”
Another change SB 237 would make is expanding the eligibility for the child care scholarship to families with 85 percent of the state median income or less. For a family of three, that would increase the threshold for initial eligibility from about $50,600 a year to about $86,200.
The bill would also use state funds to remove copays for families at or below the federal poverty level and reduce the copays for families just above the poverty level to $5 per week. Senate Finance moved on Tuesday to include a measure reducing copays for low-income families in their budget proposal, but chose to fund it with federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars instead of state funds.
Whitley said her proposal is an effort to increase the number of families that choose to use the scholarship. “If it’s only sort of a drop in the bucket, a family may not take advantage of a scholarship program because it may be so difficult to get,” she said, but she hopes that reducing copays and raising rates would incentivize more families to use the program.
Karen Hebert, director of the DHHS Division of Economic Stability, said in an interview that the number of scholarship recipients has “declined quite a bit” since the pandemic. She thinks changes to eligibility requirements would increase utilization.
Leslie Ela, who works as a care coordinator for military families, told the Bulletin why expanding eligibility would make a difference for families in need.
“A single mom … got a raise at her job and she reached out to our program devastated because the $60 a month she got in a raise made her ineligible for the scholarship,” Ela said. While that mother’s pay raise barred her from using scholarship funds, it didn’t make up for the extra child care costs she suddenly had to cover on her own.
Ela’s client faced what is often called the “cliff effect” – when a wage increase results in a loss of government support for an individual or family, making them worse-off financially. This effect can discourage workers from seeking promotions or higher-paying jobs.
The DHHS progress report on “Closing the Cliff Effect,” published earlier this year, noted that increasing child care eligibility to 85 percent of state median income would help reduce the cliff effect.
The report, and Leon, say DHHS will await legislative action to change scholarship eligibility requirements.
Faster turnaround on background checks
One area where there have been concrete changes in recent months is the background check process.
Until December of last year, the Department of Health and Human Services provided a waiver to child care centers, allowing new hires at these centers to begin working under supervision from other staff members before their background checks were completed.
When that waiver ended, Cowell said, child care providers struggled. They told Early Learning NH that they were losing new hires because they couldn’t “tell them when they’re gonna start.”
Berry and Cowell both said that the wait time for background checks and fingerprinting has since been greatly reduced.
Leon said DHHS, which handles background checks, has taken steps to accelerate the process for approving new hires. He cited changes such as moving much of the process online and removing the notary requirement for certain forms.
“It continues to be our goal to make this a very efficient and swift process while also complying with the federal requirements,” Leon said. Next year, he said, the department plans to speed things up further by moving more pieces of the process online.
Department of Safety spokesman Tyler Dumont said his department, which is responsible for the fingerprint scans required for new hires, has added one more scanning machine and plans to add 10 more across the state to increase access and accelerate the process.
Berry said he was glad to see background checks go “from taking three weeks to two days” after changes were made to the process.
Whitley’s bill includes $250,000 yearly to support child care centers as they await background checks.
The road ahead
Moving forward, Whitley said she hopes to increase government funding for pre-K. “Child care is a piece of a puzzle, but so is pre K, both for working families and for getting our children ready to learn,” she said.
Berry’s child care committee has been holding listening sessions to hear from Granite Staters affected by child care shortage. He said he plans to work with that committee on drafting new child care legislation to be introduced next year.
He hopes they’ll focus on what he calls “long-term solutions” – cutting back on regulations to make it easier to open and operate a child care center and creating more pathways for high school graduates to join the child care workforce.
He also raised the challenge of the student-to-teacher ratios set by state licensing requirements.
For the youngest children in child care centers – those aged 6 weeks to 12 months – the state enforces a ratio of no more than four children to each adult. The ratios increase as children age, up to one adult per 15 kids age 5 and older.
Warden told the Bulletin that these ratios spell financial trouble for infant care. “Centers are offering infant and toddler spots almost at a deficit to themselves financially” and often use revenues from older students with higher student-to-teacher ratios to offset losses from taking in younger students, she said.
Though Berry expressed the need to prioritize safety, he thinks some of the ratios might need to be tweaked. He said he’s looking to address “that stranglehold that occurs right now with these infant and toddler rooms.”
But neither Warden nor Marianne Barter, who chairs the NH Child Care Advisory Council and spoke to the Bulletin in her personal capacity as executive director of two child care centers, support changing the ratios. They say caring for four infants at a time is hard enough as it is.
Warden and Barter said that the solution is more funding for child care – infant care programs, specifically.
“If we had a large influx of federal funds available specifically for infant programs, that would be hugely beneficial for families in the state,” she said.
Barter said she’s seen federal lawmakers focus on funding preschool programs, but she’d like that focus to shift. Preschool, she said, “is affordable care.” At her centers, she’s seen little to no waitlist for preschool. “The problem is infants,” Barter said.
A plan for universal pre-K and subsidies for child care were part of the Build Back Better Act that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2021, but these were not included in the Inflation Reduction Act that was signed into law by President Joe Biden last summer. That leaves changes to child care funding largely in the hands of state governments for now.
For parents like Plante, the Center Harbor mom who will be at home with infant Clover until November, increased infant care capacity in the state would make all the difference.
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