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Low income families struggle with getting childcare in New England

Children playing in a sandbox.
Courtesy DDA604
via Flickr/Creative Commons

Access to child care remains an issue across the state, especially for low income families. Wealthier families in New England are more likely to use childcare, according to a recent analysis from the University of New Hampshire.

The gap in childcare usage between low income and high income families persisted despite employment status, so low income families are less likely to use childcare even if they have a job.

Jess Carson, the director of the Center for Social Policy in Practice at UNH, authored the analysis. She said she expected there to be a gap in childcare usage between high income and low income families, but she thought including unpaid care in the analysis might explain the discrepancy.

“That is, that higher income families might use more paid care and lower income families might use more unpaid care in a way that would even out,” Carson said in an email.

But this wasn’t the case. Low income families struggle to find care in general, regardless of cost.

Childcare in New Hampshire often costs more than national averages, according to county-level data from the Department of Labor. Childcare was most expensive in Rockingham county, where sending a toddler to daycare was estimated to cost $13,645 annually in 2022.

The Department of Labor estimated the average cost of putting an infant in a childcare center to be more than $14,000 a year in some New Hampshire counties. For reference, UNH’s annual in-state tuition costs $15,500 a year.

Some in the state say that barriers to finding childcare are also making labor shortages worse.

Anna Hubbard is the project manager for early childhood education at Vital Communities, an Upper Valley nonprofit. Hubbard says some of the families served by Vital Communities face cascading repercussions when they can’t get childcare.

“We have these families that can’t afford it, and they also can’t afford a nanny – they just don’t have a lot of options,” Hubbard said. “So they’re staying home to be with their kids, and then they aren’t making money because they’re staying home from work.”

Hubbard said current issues accessing childcare are also intensified by staffing shortages in childcare centers.

“We have families that are paying way more than they should be for childcare, and then we have providers that are underpaid,” Hubbard said.

Shaun Mulholland, Lebanon’s city manager, echoed Hubbard’s concerns, but added that the impacts are not equal across all groups.

“We’re losing well trained and well qualified employees,” Mulholland said. “And most of them are women, not all of them are women, but most of them are women right here in the Upper Valley that cannot return to work because they can’t either afford childcare or they can’t find childcare.”

The Department of Labor said in 2023 that decreasing childcare costs raised maternal employment rates.

But, Mullholland said, the problem is bigger than just the impact on businesses.

“So it’s more than just the economics, it’s about fundamental fairness,” Mullholland said. “And it’s about the opportunity for these kids to advance in the future, as well as through the school system, because they will have gotten a leg up by some hopefully highly effective public education.”

Lebanon is attempting one solution to the problem by partnering with the Boys and Girls Club to open a childcare center, a model which has also been tried in Allenstown. The city also worked with a local organization, Vital Communities, and other community partners to brainstorm what that could look like. Sullivan County officials are also looking into creating a childcare center for their employees.

But for Hubbard, it’s important to remember how child care connects to other issues.

“I really just want to emphasize that it’s all part of a system, and for one system to be healthy, every part of the system has to be healthy,” Hubbard said. “So it’s really a menu of things that we need to be working on, not just one thing.”

Corrected: August 30, 2023 at 2:07 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the role of Vital Communities in Lebanon's planned child care center. The organization was part of a brainstorming effort but is not directly partnering with the city on the initiative.