The state of New Hampshire’s child care

In many ways the future of New Hampshire’s economy depends directly on the quality and accessibility of care for its youngest residents. Research has long established that the quality of a child’s care during his or her earliest years has a profound effect upon that child’s social, emotional and cognitive development.How our state’s future workers interact on the job site, their ability to engage in productive work habits, and their ability to remain productive as employees partially hinges on who takes care of them as infants and toddlers. This is a crucial time for the development of cognitive, social and emotional habits that will follow them throughout their lives and careers. Therefore, New Hampshire employers should have a vested interest in what our child-care market is all about.Furthermore, access to quality child care is one of the key factors in attracting young families and young workers to our state and keeping them in place.Declining access to affordable child care for families has caused a decline in prosperity and livability for a number of our rural communities. Child-care issues are some of the leading causes of stress at work for many of our state’s workers.Each year the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services is required under federal guidelines to conduct a market and rate survey of child-care providers in the state. This year’s survey, conducted by Dr. Michael Kalinowski and his wife Fanny, should set some alarm bells ringing across state government and the state’s business community.First, some good news from the report – kind of. The average capacity of our state’s individual child-care centers has risen over the past 10 years from an average of 38 children in a program to 45 children. However, for many families looking for child care, bigger isn’t necessarily better.Program trendsSadly the overall number of licensed child-care programs has fallen by nearly 12 percent over the same 10-year period. This means that families across the state have fewer available choices in types of child care (at a center vs. a home-based environment), and that there are fewer licensed child-care facilities in close proximity to where working families actually live.I think we can assume that if we continue the trend towards larger, more institutional care and see a further decline in family-centered child care, families will also have correspondingly fewer choices in the cost of care. Remember, access to affordable, nearby child care is one of the most significant factors young families look at in choosing where to work and live.Another concern is the decline in the number of child-care programs that operate on weekends or outside the eight-to-five work day. Although many of our state’s businesses require 24/7 attention, very little child care is available for off-hour workers.The study also documents a shift away from the small business or family-owned child-care model in New Hampshire towards a model of larger, not-for-profit centers. If this shift continues, we may see the disappearance of small, family-operated programs in the state.Another dismaying trend is the fact that, in percentage terms, the greatest increase in child-care industry growth in the last 10 years in New Hampshire has been in programs that serve school-aged children. If this trend continues it will become harder and harder in many areas of the state to find child care for babies and toddlers.I have seen many reports in recent weeks that the New Hampshire economy is on the upswing. If we continue to generate new jobs, where will the workers re-entering or just entering the workforce take their children? Reasonable estimates based on past trends indicate the need for a 5 percent to 7 percent increase in the number of licensed child-care programs over the next three to five years.Our legislators and our business leaders need to take a serious look at our state’s child-care needs right away. We are beginning to see signs of a crisis on the horizon that could affect the viability of the much touted “New Hampshire Advantage.” Our babies certainly deserve the attention.Read the full text of the report at New Hampshire Child Care Market Rate Survey .Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or