Jul 30, 2021

Report: Norwich parents cut back on work because of lack of day care

NORWICH — Three-quarters of Norwich parents who responded to a recent survey said they reduced work hours or left their jobs altogether to care for their children because of difficulty finding affordable child care.

Meanwhile, more than a third of families reported cutting back on spending for food, health care or long-term savings to make child care arrangements work.

Those findings, which highlight the severity of the Upper Valley’s child care shortage, were released Wednesday by the Norwich Child Care Committee, which is working to study the problem.

So far, it’s found an “acute shortage” of available slots in Norwich and surrounding towns, particularly those for infants and toddlers.

Parents can be expected to pay between $700 and $2,100 a month to send children up to age 3 to a program, according to the group’s interim report. That amounts to a top rate of $25,000 a year.

“Clearly, parents were having to make financial choices to prioritize child care,” former Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, a Norwich resident and the committee’s chairwoman, told the Norwich Selectboard on Wednesday night.

The committee, she said, surveyed 62 Norwich parents who represent 82 children under age 5. Overall, it found, families have trouble finding not only a program but one that works for their schedules.

Full-day care can be tough to come by, Holcombe said, leading many parents to seek supplemental care or rely more heavily on family members.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated the lack of child care for both families and providers, and the need for new policies like paid family medical leave became more apparent, she said.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, last year vetoed the Legislature’s plans for a statewide family leave program, saying he didn’t support the $29 million mandatory payroll tax that would have funded it.

Since then, Democratic lawmakers haven’t been able to advance an alternative, partially because leaders prioritized the state’s pandemic response during this year’s session.

Families “really struggled when children were sick and schools and programs were closed and parents still needed care,” said Holcombe, who ran for governor in 2020 but lost in the Democratic primary.

Advocates say the Norwich committee’s findings are troubling, especially considering the town’s status as one of the state’s wealthiest communities.

The report “is a painful example about what the lack of child care and the lack of affordable access to child care is doing to families and communities,” Aly Richards, CEO of the Burlington nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, said Thursday.

She went on to call Vermont’s current child care system “broken,” and said the consequences cross demographic and socioeconomic lines.

Prior to the pandemic, Let’s Grow Kids issued a report highlighting a shortage of regulated care for toddlers and infants in Vermont.

The nonprofit’s 2020 analysis found that 62% of infants and 27% of toddlers in Vermont do not have access to regulated programs. Meanwhile, roughly a third of the state’s preschoolers don’t have access to full-day, full-year child care.

Even with financial assistance, Vermont families can spend almost 30% of their annual income on child care, the report said.

Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH found that the Upper Valley was short 2,000 child care slots.

Exacerbating the shortage of child care openings is a lack of employees to meet required child-to-adult ratios. Many providers earlier this month said they have reduced their hours due to staffing issues because of the industry’s high demands and low pay.

Holcombe said she surveyed centers in Hanover, Norwich and Thetford for the report.

“Programs did not talk about competing for children,” she said. “They did talk about competing with programs for staffing.”

Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland said the shortage of child care slots is a “huge” issue that has regional implications.

“We have people not entering the workforce,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to go to work when you’re paying the same for child care.”

Mulholland said the child care shortage has posed challenges at City Hall, where he’s attempting to attract new workers. The city is currently surveying municipal employees about their child care needs, he added, with results due later this week.

In the meantime, the Norwich Child Care Committee plans to continue exploring the matter, with further studies that examine how contracting with providers could improve the situation, and looking into what other approaches Vermont municipalities have tried.

Click here to read this story on the Valley News website. 

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