Our View: Why can’t we wrap our heads around public investment in child care?


The shorthand started circulating as President Biden worked to pass 2021’s second major funding bill. “The care economy.”

Arria Carbonneau is director of Peaks Island Children’s Workshop, which was awarded $10,500 in a Portland grant program. She is applying the entirety of the money toward salary but worries about what she’ll do when the funds run out. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Biden administration’s first signature funding bill, a trillion-dollar package devoted to significantly restoring or replacing many of the country’s nuts and bolts, directed money to a host of familiar, non-controversial items: roads, ports, utilities and so on.

The second package, larger again because of $800 billion in proposed tax credits, seemed to require a special public relations campaign. While both were touted as “once in a generation” measures, only the second – which came to be known as the American Families Plan – broke new ground.

Rather than running the math on the financing of broadband or railroad, elected representatives and the public alike were asked to support investment in a sprawling set of social policies  – focusing on alleviating economic inequality, investing in education and supporting women – many of which hadn’t been given anything like federal attention before.

Chief among them was an expansion of subsidized child care to low- and middle-income families, up to and including universal free preschool. The text of the plan referred to the “true cost” of quality care – something all too often obscured from view. Despite the administration’s efforts to bring people around, support was more forthcoming for the repair of bridges.

“Is child care infrastructure?” Stanford University economist Atif Mian tweeted that summer, wading into the strange debate over semantics (yes, Mian swiftly concluded, “making it easier for people, especially women, to stay connected to their profession helps us all”).

One way or another, and despite a battery of evidence supporting public investment in child care, the same debate is ongoing today.

As the Press Herald’s Lana Cohen reported Sunday, we are rapidly approaching a precipitous child-care funding cliff. Millions of dollars in federal funding that has kept Maine’s providers afloat in recent years is running out, and providers across the state are deeply worried about what will happen if it does.

The pandemic-era subsidy that’s been reaching providers has been nothing short of critical to their survival; the market offers no lifelines whatsoever. American Rescue Plan money has been used to bring extremely low levels of pay for child care workers up to still-low levels of pay.

As Cohen noted, the average pay for child care workers in the U.S. last year was $13.31 per hour, $27,680 annually. In Maine, the figure was $14.90, or $31,000 annually. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculator, Maine’s average living wage is $17.88 per hour.

“I recognize I am not able to pay them as much as they could make outside the field of early childhood,” one child care agency director said of her workers, who she’s been paying a little bit extra with federal grant money. “I really value being able to keep them so I can stay open for all the families I provide for.”

For the third straight month last month, the national labor force participation rate fell. Trouble finding child care is chief among the reasons given for the dip. By one estimate, there are now at least half a million fewer day care spots than before the pandemic. Advocates say that pre-pandemic starting point was already inadequate and left many families out.

The question mark over funding that’s tormenting the child care providers of Maine shouldn’t be hanging over them at all.

Those philosophically opposed to public investment in child care point to the relative risk involved. You know what’s riskier? Falling completely out of step with the rest of the world’s most advanced economies; letting a pivotal sector crumble, and forcing American families to – once again – figure it out by themselves.

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