Build Back Better promises to transform child care

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally change the lives of working people, families, and children in Maine. Among other pillars, the plan proposes to make transformational investments in child care — a sector that has been ravaged over the past 18 months and long been trapped in a high-cost, low-wage spiral that fails to adequately serve families and workers alike.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average annual cost of infant care in Maine was $9,449 — just shy of the cost of in-state public university tuition.1 Based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services definition of child care affordability — up to 7 percent of family income — infant care is affordable to only 11.9 percent of Maine families.2 Child care for two children costs an average of more than $17,000, or above a quarter of the annual income for a family with median-income in Maine.

Researchers have identified a host of interrelated negative consequences stemming from a lack of affordable child care. In addition to many families being forced to send their kids to substandard child care settings, employers suffer lost productivity due to parents missing work and parents, overwhelmingly women, lose wages and retirement benefits when they leave their jobs to care for children.

While child care is costly, providers are among the lowest-paid workers in Maine due to the labor-intensive nature of the work. Child care requires high staff-to-youth ratios, and, unlike many industries, there is very little room for automation. As of May 2020, the median hourly wage of Maine child care workers was just $13.84, and 25 percent of workers earned less than $12.50 an hour.3 Unsurprisingly, child care providers point to low wages as the primary hurdle to offering care to Maine families.

In a Summer 2021 survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 85 percent of child care center respondents in Maine indicated they were experiencing a staffing shortage, and 83 percent identified wages as the main recruitment challenge. 45 percent of respondents said they were either considering leaving their program or the business might close as soon as the following year.4 A Spring 2021 survey identified that child care providers’ single greatest challenge in the pandemic was understaffing, followed by budget deficits and an inability to meet the demand for care.5 Maine Department of Health and Human Services reported a net loss of more than 60 child care centers statewide.6 Nationally, there were 126,000 fewer child care workers in August 2021 than in February 2020.7

The shortage of child care options burdens families throughout Maine, but it is most acute in rural areas. In 2019, before the pandemic significantly exacerbated the child care shortage, the Bipartisan Policy Center found that the “child care gap” — the percentage of children who potentially need care but whose families cannot access it reasonably — was 9.2 percent statewide. However, the gap in rural areas was 11.5 percent compared to 4.1 percent in urban areas.8

Credit is due to Maine’s elected leaders who took emergency measures to shore up the child care sector during the pandemic. Governor Mills and lawmakers invested $25 million in improving and expanding child care centers and strengthening early child care infrastructure in public schools across the state. Along with the Mills Administration’s proposal to deploy $130 million of federal funds to child care, including $73 million in grants announced this week, these investments will lower costs, increase wages, and improve quality of care.

While the pandemic exacerbated challenges in the sector, the low-wage, high-cost nature of child care is neither new nor unique. The estimated national median wage for child care workers as of May 2020 was $12.24 per hour.9 Meanwhile, the average family with at least one child under age 5 would need to devote about 13 percent of family income to pay for child care.10 We clearly need a long-term, national solution to tackle the chronic crisis in the child care economy. And even with expanded access to affordable child care, lawmakers should also explore policies to support parents who choose to stay home with their children.

Build Back Better invests in workers, parents, and children alike

Congress is currently negotiating the Build Back Better package and the final details remain to be seen. However, a proposed $450 billion ten-year investment in child care and pre-K makes clear that the Biden administration’s agenda aims to equitably grow our workforce and economy for years to come.11

The Build Back Better plan proposes:

  • Free child care for qualifying Maine families. A bill currently in the House Committee on Education and Labor12 would provide this support to families earning up to 75 percent of state median income for their family size (currently just over $56,000 for a family of four in Maine). Families who make more would pay a small percentage of their income, capped at 7 percent for the highest-earning families. For example, a family of four with an annual income of $100,000 would pay no more than $7,000 toward the total cost of child care for the year. In all, up to 97 percent of young children in Maine could be eligible for some form of subsidy.
  • Universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, which the White House estimates would save the average family $13,000 when fully implemented. Of the 26,700 3- and 4-year-olds in Maine in 2019, only 6,100 were enrolled in a public pre-K program. Since some parents will choose to keep their kids at home, the Maine Center for Economic Policy estimates around 12,000 additional Maine children would enroll under the new program.
  • Permanent expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit that was implemented as part of the American Rescue Plan. This program provides families up to half of what they spend on child care — up to $4,000 for one child or $8,000 for families with multiple children.13
  • A national $15 minimum wage for child care workers. The current bill in the House Committee on Education and Labor goes further, requiring child care workers be paid living wages equivalent to those of elementary school teachers with similar credentials and experience. With approximately 60 percent of child care workers currently earning less than $15 per hour, these historic investments would raise the wages of thousands of workers throughout Maine.14

The longstanding struggle of working Maine families to afford and access quality child care has held back economic growth and diminished women’s ability to continue their careers. Meanwhile, the youngest children are cared for by workers of whom the overwhelming majority are women, and who are among the least compensated. The Build Back Better plan proposes the necessary investments to improve wages for workers while ensuring all Maine families have the quality care that parents and children alike need to prosper.




[3] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Maine, available at

[4] National Association for the Education of Young Children, “State Survey Data: Child Care at a Time of Progress and Peril August 2021,” August 2021, available at

[5] Child Care in Maine, Spring 2021, One Year in a Pandemic, created by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children (MaineAEYC), Family Child Care Association of Maine (FCCAM), Maine Head Start Directors Association (MHSDA), and YMCA Alliance of Northern New England, available at


[7] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

[8] Bipartisan Policy Center, Child Care Gaps in 2019, Maine,

[9] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Childcare Workers, available at

[10] U.S. Department of the Treasure, The Economics of Child Care Supply in the United State, September 2021,

[11] House Committee on Education and Labor, Fact Sheet on Build Back Better Act,

[12] House Committee on Education and Labor, Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022,

[13] White House Fact Sheet,

[14] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Maine, available at