Making childcare more affordable doesn’t take a government program

The funny thing about Maine politics is that, for the most part, everyone agrees on the same problems.

There are two specific instances of that concept which we are constantly presented with: Maine’s economy, and the need to get younger.

The Maine economy is strong right now, in relative terms. Unemployment is low, wages are (slowly) growing, and gross domestic product is expanding.

But we all know that Maine is really nibbling at the edges, and our strong position is only strong in comparison to the general five-decade long malaise the state has experienced.

Virtually everyone recognizes this, politicians and voters alike. We need to significantly alter our economy to produce more jobs and generate more wealth that we can all enjoy.

In addition to this issue, everyone agrees that Maine needs to get younger. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever met a single politician or policy expert of any political philosophy that argues otherwise. It is, after all, kind of apparent when you are the oldest state in the union.

And, of course, these two problems that we all agree on, are linked to each other.

Last night, during his final State of the State address, Gov. Paul LePage lamented the stark contrasts between Maine and New Hampshire, our liberty-loving neighbor to the west.

This is nothing new for a conservative, of course, but he especially highlighted the disparity in terms of median per-capita income, which is 60 percent higher in the Granite State.

He urged legislators to see the writing on the wall when it comes to taxes and the cost of doing business in Maine. He urged Mainers to have more children, emphasizing our highest median age of any state in the U.S.

A nice step in the right direction, and at least, LePage sees the problem.

But attracting younger people and families is about more than having more kids and lowering taxes, though both are critical.

Stock photo.

Ultimately, the first bar Maine has to clear is a simple math equation. You need to be able to afford to live and work here, and if we are truly going to have more children — and with my fourth child due in a couple weeks, I’m certainly doing my part — than we need to be able to actually afford to have and care for them.

The Legislature supposedly recognizes this roadblock, and has tried for more than 10 years to increase the quality of childcare in Maine. Sadly, though, they have neglected to balance the underlying economic factors necessary to start a childcare practice, and I would argue have done more harm than good in ensuring the availability of affordable, quality daycare for parents.

Parents with young children rely heavily on the availability and cost of daycare in order to join and stay in the workforce. We must ensure choice and competition in this space so parents can find both affordability, and quality.

Since 2008, Maine has lost 600 providers statewide, with the majority of closures coming in family, or home-based child care.

Over the last decade, every county in Maine has lost at least one-fifth of their licensed family child care providers.

This occurred over a time where rules like child-to-staff ratios, building and environment requirements and arbitrary licensing schemes became more restrictive. The deference to mounting state mandates, which the Department of Health and Human Services has begun to ease, has let down providers and parents alike.

Mainers have experienced the results of this phenomena firsthand. Today, the average cost of center-based child care in Maine is $9,667 a year, exceeding the average yearly cost of in-state tuition at the University of Maine.

For a family in Maine with two children living at the federal poverty line, the cost of center-based child care consumes more than 90 percent of the family’s household income. As consumer costs have risen to meet costs to providers, more and more home- and center-based child care providers have closed up shop.

I can already hear the arguments from the left. These facts mean that we need a gigantic government-funded early childcare effort, funded by taxpayers, to fill the gap.

Not only is this a mistake. It is unnecessary.

Effective, affordable childcare is not evaporating from Maine for lack of demand. It is going away because, as in so many cases, government policy has pushed it away. Governments shovel more regulations, and higher costs, and make it impossible for many qualified providers to even make a reasonable living.

Thus, fewer providers exist. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

For a service that is as important as childcare is to young parents, we owe it to the future of our state to provide options, and cultivate affordability. It might just pay off down the line.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.