“We are in a crisis” – Child care costs hit $32k on average

Leanna Lordon at the White Birch Center in Henniker where different generations from toddlers to senior citizens come under one roof in the center of town.

Leanna Lordon at the White Birch Center in Henniker where different generations from toddlers to senior citizens come under one roof in the center of town. GEOFF FORESTER

Estimate costs for a family of four in Merrimack County, according to the Economic Policy Institute's Family Budget Calculator.

Estimate costs for a family of four in Merrimack County, according to the Economic Policy Institute's Family Budget Calculator. —Courtesy

New Hampshire child care costs hit an all-time high for families with two kids, at $32,000 annually.

New Hampshire child care costs hit an all-time high for families with two kids, at $32,000 annually. —Courtesy

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 05-20-2024 5:33 PM

For Leanna Lorden, one positive to come out of the state’s child care crisis is how the staggering numbers caught the attention of lawmakers.

A new estimate reveals that child care costs $32,000 annually for a New Hampshire family with two kids under the age of five.

That means young families can expect to spend more on child care than any other expense – from housing to health care costs – according to the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.

This estimate cements what Lorden has known to be true for a while – the state’s child care industry is reaching a point of no return, with slim staffing due to low salaries and exorbitant costs that are pricing parents out.

It’s an issue that requires the immediate attention of the state’s lawmakers, she said. On Thursday, the House will vote on a proposal that would make all child care employees eligible for the state’s scholarship program.

“We are in a crisis in the state and we have been for a couple of years now,” she said. “Our policy members and the people who have those decision-making abilities need to see it for what it is.”

White Birch Center in Henniker, where Lorden is the chief operating officer, is many things throughout the day – quiet isn’t one of them.

“They’re engaged, they’re outside,” she said. “It’s a booming, it’s a bustling place.”

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The center provides care for infants starting at nine months through pre-kindergarten 5-year-olds.

Tuition ranges from $340 a week for infants, or $17,680 annually, to $315, or $16,380, for pre-kindergarten.

These rates are on par with state averages, where infant care at a center hovers around $17,000 and toddler prices sit at $16,000.

But in the last year, these average costs have increased by 12.5 percent, according to a survey from the Child Care Aware of America, a national research organization, that aggregated figures from New Hampshire’s child care resources and referral agencies and the Department of Health and Human Services.

White Birch is the only child care center in Henniker, currently, and one of a handful in the surrounding area. With that, Lorden sees families driving from Concord, Manchester, Goffstown, Bradford and Hillsboro for care.

At the top of the center’s website right now, a red banner reads, “No open enrollment opportunities until Fall 2025 for infant, toddler and preschool-age children.”

Right now, infant care is at capacity with 65 kids enrolled. For toddlers, 40 kids are enrolled. The waitlist is 70 names deep.

Staffing remains a challenge – even with reduced tuition rates for employees, as well. White Birch is looking to hire eight new people, as they hope to increase infant care in the fall.

By expanding eligibility for the state’s child care scholarship to all employees, offsetting salary costs means that the center could keep tuition rates flat, or focus on fundraising, said Lorden.

Last year, the state budget included a $60 million investment in child care, with a focus on recruitment and retention for employees. The budget also increased eligibility for the state’s child care scholarship program to 85 percent of the state median income. For a family of three, who makes less than $89,200 annually, child care costs would hover around $6,200 with the assistance.

Still, only two employees at White Birch qualify for this subsidy, said Lorden.

When Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat now running for U.S. Congress, first introduced the bill for expanded eligibility, all child care employees would qualify for the state scholarship.

The amount of aid provided would be based on their experience, kids ages and the type of facility they worked at – rather than household income.

After amendments in the House and Senate, lawmakers will vote Thursday on a six-month $1.1 million pilot program, where all child care employees will be eligible for scholarship assistance from Jan. 1 through June 30, 2025.

This trial period will be used to determine the programs’ success with recruitment and retention of employees, according to the amendment in the House journal. A report will follow, as well, due by Nov. 1, 2025.

For Lorden, it’s one further step that lawmakers can take to help alleviate the ongoing crisis. Without continued aid, centers will close their doors as remaining tuition prices skyrocket.

“We’re already teeter ing right on the cliff, if not already fallen off,” she said. “So many agencies around us have closed.”