As federal emergency funding ends, NH child care providers say they still need help
Since 2020, New Hampshire has received more than $142 million from the federal government to assist with child care stabilization.
That money has helped pay for scholarships for children attending centers when those were closed, covered costs for when children had to miss child care services due to COVID, and helped businesses that suffered income loss during the pandemic. That funding is now ending, but local providers and advocates say the challenges it was meant to help — staffing shortages, a scarcity of options for working families and more — still remain.
Natasha Hyde, owner and director of Bright Beginnings in Hooksett, was one childcare provider who benefited from those funds. When she opened her center last July, she said federal dollars helped her hire and retain staff. She said paying the wages needed to attract and retain workers was one of her early hurdles.
Rebecca Woitkowski, the director of Kids Count Policy for New Futures, said childcare services have been able to offer sign-on bonuses to staff, increase wages, and keep doors open during the pandemic thanks to the federal funding. But Woitkowski said the pressures on child care providers are still present.
Those challenges are front and center for Caitlyn Bacon, director of the Lancaster Play and Learn Center, one of just a handful of daycares open in that town.
“Parents can’t work unless their children are being cared for,” she said.
Bacon said her waitlist has been full for the last several years. And with so few alternatives in her community, she said parents are sometimes forced to drive to daycare centers in Littleton, Colebrook and Berlin — towns 25 to 40 minutes away.
“We understand the troubles that parents are going through,” Bacon said. “When people are saying, ‘Well, nobody wants to work,’ nobody can find childcare for their children so they can't work,” she said.
Lancaster Play and Learn Center also isn’t fully staffed. The center, like many across the state, is struggling with paying competitive wages and finding qualified applicants. It can’t necessarily expand offerings to the demand of parents in the area.
Childcare workers, Woitkowski said, are often considered "lower-skilled" — which means they are often paid less.
Yet Woitkowski notes that children often come to rely on their teachers and aides that assist them throughout the day. Woitkowski said her own two children have relied upon their teachers to help them through their tough days by being a “safe, stable, nurturing person” in their lives.
“Our early care and early childhood professionals are our child's first teachers and they're working with our families to ensure that kids have healthy outcomes is really critical and that we don't just simply look at our child care workers as low wage workers,” Woitkowski said.
Child care funding is complicated, and Early Learning NH Executive Director Jackie Cowell pointed out that services are dependent on factors that are tied to the well being of all involved.
“Child care is really that balance of what you can charge parents, what they can afford and what you can pay your staff,” she said.
New Hampshire has implemented some legislation to help families access child care services, including what supporters called a "MOMnibus" bill that directs more than $60 million into the state's childcare system.
Woitkowski said it's important for state and federal policymakers to keep up the momentum on these issues.
“The existence of additional federal funding is really vital to ensure the gaps in access for families don't outpace the state's ability to serve those families, especially our families that are living near or at the poverty line,” she said.