Child care cost, availability could rattle economy

Massachusetts and New Hampshire are near full employment — with jobless rates of 3.5 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively. The economy around here is so healthy that the prospect of dropping a second Amazon headquarters anywhere within 100 miles feels more burdensome to some people than the pot of gold that many communities in America are convinced it would be.

Still, some weak spots threaten to at least slow the area’s economy, if not undermine it completely. A crucial one is the cost and availability of child care.

In Massachusetts, child care is more expensive than anywhere else in the country outside Washington, D.C. That’s largely because of a scarcity of providers.

The parents of an infant will pay an average of $1,422 per month for care — which exceeds the annual cost of in-state tuition at a public college. In some cases, it’s more than what families pay in rent, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

The price tag throws up a barrier for large numbers of workers who are underemployed, sitting on the sidelines of the labor force because they cannot afford to work or, perhaps more likely, forced to put their children in situations less than desirable. Any of these create a strain on working parents, not to mention a real sinkhole beneath an otherwise lush economy.

There was more than a sliver of hope to this knotty problem in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Donald Trump on Friday. The spending plan put aside $5.2 billion for grants to pay for child care to allow low-income parents to go to work.

That number represents an increase of nearly $2.4 billion over the current allocation to the federal child care block grant, and it will help pay for care for 151,000 more children than are currently served, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Still, more money for child care vouchers only alleviates part of the problem. The broader issue is not so readily resolved with a big pile of money from the federal government.

Despite the price tag of most child care for parents, the people hired to care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers usually make relatively little doing so.

That reality limits the number of people drawn to those jobs. It also affects the quality of care, which is concerning given the importance of those early years to a child’s development.

In its April 2016 analysis, the Economic Policy Institute urged a more thorough look at providing more resources to attract and keep highly trained child care professionals in the field.

The benefits of better, more accessible care would flow not only to individual children and their families, the report noted, but to the larger economy.

The report’s authors imagined an American economy where adults now hamstrung from working by child care concerns are put to work fully. The economic benefit could rack up $600 billion in growth to the gross domestic product, they estimated.

Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives has noted the troubling state of child care in the region, pointing to it during a luncheon earlier this month sponsored by the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce. O’Connor Ives noted that 21,000 children in the state are in families awaiting a child care voucher. Still other families are spending far more money than they should be for someone to watch and educate their kids.

“The state of child care in Massachusetts, like the rest of the nation, isn’t working for anyone — not families or care providers,” said O’Connor Ives, a Newburyport Democrat whose district includes Haverhill, Methuen and part of North Andover. She highlighted the issue as one that affects not just the residents of the Merrimack Valley and has far-reaching economic impact.

It will take a lot of hands to address this issue, including those of lawmakers such as O’Connor Ives, child care providers and education leaders. For the sake of our children, families and the economy, it merits close attention.

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