The State of Maine Has a Childcare Crisis

The Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs is bringing people together to find policy solutions for the childcare problem

Some of the colorful cubbies at the Happy Days Childcare and Learning Center at Colby College.
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Gabe Souza, Brian Fitzgerald, and Kirsten Marjerison
June 28, 2023

The shortage of childcare in Maine is a major economic issue that may be costing the state $403 million annually in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue, and it is forcing parents to make tough decisions about how much they can participate in the workforce. 

It’s a problem that affects parents, employers, and taxpayers alike. With a goal of bringing the state’s business and other leaders together to think about creative approaches to address the issue, Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston recently hosted an on-campus conference, “Policy and Practice Solutions for Addressing Child Care Shortages.”

Alison Beyea, executive director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College, said that childcare is a workforce, social justice, child welfare, and economic issue. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

Among the presenters were Coastal Enterprises Inc., the Jackson Laboratory, and Hannaford.  

“Childcare is a workforce issue. It’s a social justice issue. It’s a child welfare issue. It’s an economic issue,” Alison Beyea, the center’s executive director, said at the outset of the conference. “There’s no way that any one sector can tackle this. It’s going to require us all coming together to work on it.” 

The Goldfarb Center can facilitate conversations to help problem-solve critical public policy issues like this one. 

“At Colby, we can go beyond theory,” Beyea said. “We’re able to bring together academics, practitioners, and stakeholders to generate and consider collaborative solutions.” 

Sarah Savage, senior policy analyst and advisor for the Federal Reserve, said the issue is a top priority. 

“Childcare is an economic issue with downstream effects,” Savage said, adding that the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston is studying the economic ramifications of childcare. “It plays out for employers in the economy in terms of employee retention and turnover and productivity.” 

Research with real-world implications

Earlier this year, a group of Colby faculty and student researchers, led by Beyea and Nicholas Jacobs, assistant professor of government, surveyed 1,000 parents across New England about the challenges parents face in trying to access quality childcare. 

Claudia Miner ’23, Gabriel Rivas Orellana ’23, and Zoe Onyango ’25 helped to design, implement, and analyze the results. 

Nicholas Jacobs, assistant professor of government, said that new research done by a team from Colby will shed light on the childcare crisis in Maine and New England.

According to preliminary data, the survey found that there is broad support across the political spectrum for government and private-sector efforts to help working parents secure childcare and that parents place high value on an employer’s policies and practices.

“This group of students carried out real research on a problem of national importance,” Jacobs said. “This was not a term paper they handed in at the end of the semester but data and a report that will help inform the conversation about how to address these problems. … It is a perfect example of the type of work our students are hungry to do and the type of research Colby can support outside of the classroom.”

Miner said she was glad to have worked on the project, which she called an “exciting opportunity” to better understand the problem of childcare in Maine. 

“Now, we can start thinking about policy solutions, and I’m excited by the work that Professor Jacobs and the Goldfarb Center continue to do with students in this regard,” she said.

According to Jacobs, most existing research on childcare access establishes the problem that there’s not enough of it and it costs too much. 

“This research shows just how complex the issue is and the reason why no single solution has emerged to fix it,” he said. “Thousands of parents are working who would rather stay at home and raise their kids, while nearly just as many parents are at home raising kids, but want to work. The problem is especially pronounced in Maine and in the most rural parts of our state.” 

A crisis changes the status quo

That rings true for Colby Provost and Dean of Faculty Margaret McFadden, who said that for many years, Colby faculty and staff had been asking for a childcare center connected to the College. Stymied by many factors, the center didn’t happen. 

“It was never somehow possible,” she said as a conference panelist. “It never worked out.” 

Then Covid-19 happened, upending the status quo and forcing a change. Two years ago, Colby opened a childcare center on campus with room for 38 children. All the spaces are now full. 

The Happy Days Childcare and Learning Center at Colby College is one answer to the Maine childcare crisis. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

“I think the reason we were finally able to do this was the crisis of Covid,” McFadden said. “It just was absolutely essential. We were open, our students were back on campus. We needed our faculty and staff to be here. And this was absolutely essential for our people to be able to come to work and feel like their kids were safe.” 

Provost and Dean of Faculty Margaret McFadden said that the pandemic made opening a childcare center at Colby “essential.”

From start to finish, it took nine months to open the Happy Days Childcare and Learning Center at Colby College in the completely transformed Millett House at the base of Mayflower Hill. The center is run by Jennifer Stevens and Rae Ann Lajoie, the owners of another accredited, locally owned facility operating in nearby Winslow. They oversee operations at the Colby facility, including the hiring and training of an onsite manager and the professionals who care for and teach the children. 

The center has been an important resource as the College recruits faculty and staff members, McFadden said, many of whom are now starting families. 

“We are having our own little mini Colby baby boom right now,” she said. “It’s been an incredibly important competitive advantage for us to be able to say that we have a childcare center and there will be space for their children.” 

Success stories

The Jackson Laboratory also has found that access to childcare is a critical factor in attracting the best employees, so the company has opened a site in Ellsworth and is working on another one on its campus in Bar Harbor. 

“We actually lose candidates without it,” Catherine Longley, executive vice president and chief operating officer, said. 

Bright colors and lots of natural light make the Happy Days Childcare and Learning Center at Colby College a cheerful place. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

Another success story came from the Hannaford chain of grocery stores, which launched a parental-leave policy in 2019 that provides six weeks of fully paid leave for qualifying employees after the birth, adoption, or placement of a child. 

The policy has been very popular, according to Julie Libby, vice president of human resources for the grocery chain. The company was initially surprised to find out that male employees took advantage of the new benefit on par with female employees, but Hannaford officials were glad that it was seen as something that could make a positive difference across the board. 

“Yes, there’s a cost to it, but we feel like you can’t really quantify that when you compare it to how much that helps your associates to truly feel like they can show up and bring their whole selves to work,” Libby said.