CONCORD, N.H. — Up to 90 percent of a child’s brain is formed by the time they turn 5 years old, so early childhood care really matters. But the system providing that care in New Hampshire is in rough shape.
Child care is too expensive for most families. Care for an infant typically costs between $10,140 to $15,000 a year or more. If you need care for one infant plus a 4-year-old in center-based care? That’s usually more than $28,000 a year, according to 2022 data from the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.
And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get off the long wait-lists. The institute’s data suggests the state could be lacking as many as 8,300 spots statewide.
Cora-Lynne Hoppe, who owns a child care center in Rochester, said from her vantage point, the system looks like a three-legged stool on the verge of toppling.
“I kind of joke that it’s a dumpster fire,” she said, speaking during a panel on child care at the institute’s eighth annual conference in Concord on Monday.
Hoppe said there are 435 kids enrolled for care at her center, and both the families she serves and her employees often are struggling to keep their housing. Her employees have a difficult time securing child care for their own children so they can take care of other people’s kids, on top of finding time to complete additional training required by the state.
“I am seeing people on the brink of losing everything,” Hoppe said.
But accessing child care can help people turn their lives around. That’s what happened for Hoppe. She said she lost her housing and almost everything, but because she had child care, she was able to earn a master’s degree and start her own business.
Jess Carson, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, said there’s a slight increase in available day care slots, but fewer providers. Care is becoming consolidated at bigger centers, as some of the smallest providers — often run by families or out of a home — have closed.
“That also means that we have less geographic coverage of child care,” Carson said, which means families more often have to go to another town to find care.
Some recent policy changes have helped the state make progress, according to Rebecca Woitkowski, a policy director for New Futures, a nonprofit that is advocating for more child care for working families.
The state expanded eligibility for child care assistance scholarships, from 220 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (around $50,000 for a family of three) to 85 percent of the state median income (a cap of $86,226).
The state also moved away from a billing model based on the number of students enrolled rather than their attendance, which penalized parents for student absences due to things such as an illness.
Families who are below the federal poverty guidelines no longer have to pay out-of-pocket for child care, Woitkowski said,
Even so, Woitkowski, Hoppe, and Carson agreed a lot of work remains.
“It’s just the beginning of fixing the cracks in our foundation,” Hoppe said.
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