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U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Delays to child-care relief are devastating

Workforce shortages that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused child-care centers across the Granite State to close, forcing countless families to scramble for alternative options. Since 2019, New Hampshire has lost nearly 1,500 child-care slots as dozens of child-care centers have closed their doors, straining countless families and communities.

The closure of a child-care provider can result in higher costs for families or require a parent to leave the workforce altogether. These problems are exactly what federal pandemic relief funds were intended to address when they were provided by Congress more than two years ago. But, despite the dire need for help in communities across the Granite State, the state of New Hampshire struggled to get those dollars out the door efficiently and the consequences were shouldered by our most vulnerable communities.

I’ve visited child care centers from Littleton to Rochester and Manchester to Keene and have seen closed classrooms and strained facilities in every part of our state. In October 2020, New Hampshire had only half the licensed capacity necessary to serve children under the age of 6 in need of care. In response, I was proud to help secure approximately $77 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan to support working families and child care providers across New Hampshire.

The American Rescue Plan was signed into law in March 2021, but the state of New Hampshire only recently approved the expenditure of more than $20 million of these funds that can be used to add child care slots, bolster the child care workforce and engage employers in crafting solutions to address affordability challenges. The state’s inaction delayed federal relief from helping to bring child care within reach for families and to keep struggling providers afloat.

After months of public pressure from families, providers and stakeholders, the state has finally approved the use of remaining American Rescue Plan child-care relief funding. However, these funds must be used by Sept. 30, 2024. The window of opportunity to best leverage this one-time funding is quickly closing and the statewide impact these funds can make is shrinking with each passing day the state fails to act quickly.

According to the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, 43 percent of households experienced disruptions in their child care during the pandemic — causing many to leave the workforce. The state’s inaction to deploy federal resources that were at its disposal has further strained family budgets, especially in underserved and rural communities, during a time when many faced economic pressure. I’ve heard from every industry across the state, including manufacturing, health care, non-profits and tourism, that the child care crisis has hamstrung their ability to continue growing their operations. These challenges persisted while critical relief funds sat idle at the state for over two years. Now that funds have finally been approved at the state-level, it is imperative that every effort is made to prioritize their effective use before they expire next year.

The lack of urgency from the state of New Hampshire to distribute federal child care relief has had massive consequences, often shouldered by our most vulnerable communities. The North Country has been hit particularly hard by this crisis. Coos County has ranked highest in the state for the rates of unmet child care needs, and since January, three child care centers in Coos County have closed or announced plans to close. These closures have caused parents to question how they can remain in the workforce, with potentially devastating consequences for employers and the region — all while federal relief remained available but unused by the state.

I heard from Michael in Northern Coos County whose son’s child care center recently closed. The nearest center with open slots is more than an hour away, and now Michael and his wife, like many families across the state, are doing their best to keep their jobs without local and reliable child care. Their community and local economy can’t afford for Michael or his wife, who is a critical health care worker, to leave the workforce.

Women disproportionately shoulder child care responsibilities and failing to leverage these critical federal child care resources will only further force women to leave the workforce. New Hampshire’s families should not have to choose between their children and their jobs, and New Hampshire’s businesses should not have to face additional struggles in finding qualified workers.

I urge the state to act with urgency to streamline the timely implementation of federal resources to ensure the impact of these funds is not further diminished and these awards meet the actual needs of Granite Staters. Families, small businesses and child-care providers, especially in our rural communities, cannot afford to wait any longer than they already have.