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State announces plans for $28.2 million in federal child care funding

New Hampshire Union Leader - 5/12/2022

May 12—Child care is in such short supply in New Hampshire that Lynn Ouellette said even if every seat at her center, Nellie's Treehouse in Amherst, became available tomorrow, she would still have a wait list.

Ouellette's center is licensed for 69 children, but as of Wednesday, she had more than 80 children on her wait list. Behind many of those children, she said, are parents hoping to find care so they can take a job.

"You listen to parents, they say, 'I just got a job and I need to start in two weeks.' But we don't have space," Ouellette said.

Child care workers have been quitting for higher-paying work since before the pandemic, and the trend has only accelerated amid the tight labor market. And without more staff, child care providers cannot accept more children.

The state is directing more than $28.2 million in federal funds to start up programs meant to shore up the future of child care — but business owners and advocates say they need help right now, to help pay workers enough to compete with other jobs.

The American Rescue Plan Act, the March 2021 COVID-19 relief and stimulus bill signed into law by President Joe Biden, included two pots of money for states to spend on child care: stabilization grants, which went to individual child care businesses last year, and "discretionary" funds.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services released on Wednesday an outline for how the state will spend that "discretionary" federal funding.

But with the department estimating it will take six months to a year to set up many new programs, and some of those programs needing years to see results, providers say they are in crisis right now.

The question of workforce is existential, said Shannon Tremblay, owner of Little Blessings Child Care in Portsmouth.

If child care centers do not have enough staff, they cannot enroll enough children to be profitable. Little Blessings is licensed to care for 71 children, Tremblay said, but can take on fewer than 40 now because they don't have enough staff.

"We're just barely hanging on," she said. "We don't know how much longer."

Child care providers all across New Hampshire have had to close, even after receiving stabilization funds from federal COVID-19 relief and stimulus packages in 2020 and 2021.

The whole state may be feeling the impact of the growing child care shortage. Difficulty finding and affording child care is the most common reason women have left the workforce since COVID-19, according to a survey released this week by consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the advocacy group Marshall Plan for Moms.

The state's plan divides the $28.2 million in federal dollars into four buckets:

$10 million, or about a third of the money, will fund pilot programs to test out wider eligibility for child care scholarships, different aid formulas for providers and new partnerships between the state and care providers.

$9.3 million, another third, is meant to help child care providers with the business sides of their operations, and helping start up smaller providers and employer-sponsored care.

$6.5 million will be directed toward continuous quality improvement tools and trainings

The smallest portion, $2.45 million, will fund initiatives meant to attract people to child care, from high school apprenticeship programs to a marketing campaign.

Jackie Cowell of advocacy group Early Learning NH said she was disappointed to see the relatively small amount directed toward workforce issues, when a survey of 400 child care providers and workers last fall — conducted by DHHS to figure out how to spend this money — found that hiring and retention was a high priority for 90% of respondents.

The initiatives described in DHHS's outline do not seem targeted at keeping workers in child care, she said. The earlier stabilization grants helped fund bonuses and raises, she said, but the care workforce is still stressed.

"We have a reality on the ground that there's a big walk-out," Cowell said, and the resignations in child care are holding back every other industry.

Even if pay raises funded with stimulus dollars, from last year's stabilization grants are not sustainable, Cowell said at least they have bought child care centers some time to figure out how to stay open.

Programs that take six months to a year to set up — and then may not deliver results for years, like a high school-based apprenticeship program — won't help open up any more child care seats tomorrow.

Cora Lynn Hoppe, of the Rochester Child Care Center, said funding family or home-based child care start-ups could help bring down costs — a home-based care tends to be less expensive than a child-care center — and provide more child care for the youngest children.

Still, she said, the child care industry in New Hampshire feels uncertain.

"It's really hard to figure out where we're going right now."


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