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Maine Public Deep Dive Takes In-Depth Look At Child Care

Kevin Bennett
For Maine Public
Child care teacher Gina Thompson cares for three infants at Parkside Children's Learning Center in Bangor on Tuesday. The center cares for 115-130 children a day with a staff of 34-45 full- and part-time teachers.

Over the past several months Maine Public’s entire news department has been working on a new in-depth reporting initiative called Maine Public Deep Dive. Our first Deep Dive looks at the issue of child care across the state.

Maine Public Director of News and Public Affairs Mark Simpson spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about the initiative.

Gratz: Tell us about Deep Dive. How did it come about and what do we hope it will accomplish?

Simpson: This is, as you said, a new initiative for the news department here at Maine Public. And what we’re hoping to do is bring more in-depth coverage to our audience across all our different platforms, whether it’s on the radio, if it’s on TV and if it’s online, and also be more intentional about the stories that we’re covering.

We have a department here of about 16 people. So we’re wondering what would it look like if we put the entire resource of the news department focused on a single story, a single issue. So this is the first one of these that we’re trying.

The first one of these Deep Dives is about child care.

Yes, and let me tell you about why we wanted to do that. We took a look at some of the information that’s out there and realized this issue affects many people in many different ways. Obviously there’s the parent and child relationship, but it ripples far beyond that.

Let’s talk about some of the stats that we discovered. The average cost of care for one infant in Maine in 2018 was close to $10,000. And if you look at tuition, that’s almost the same cost as attending a public university here in Maine. When you look at single parents in Maine, they spend an average about 37 percent of their income on child care. And in spots like Washington County, for example, they lost 227 spots in center-based child care facilities, and 11 spots in family-based child care centers, over the past decade. So when you wrap that all up, it’s about a 40 percent decrease in access. Of course it’s a very important issue for us to cover.

There is a lot of ground to cover on this issue of child care. How are we going to approach that?

We tried to break it down into four segments, and these also line up with some of the ways that people who are very interested in child care — from academics to experts and influencers in the child care realm — break it up as well. So we’re using the lenses of affordability, accessibility, quality and, of course, looking at solutions.

As part of this Deep Dive, we’re also taking efforts to get feedback across the state. We’re doing something called a Tell Me More tour, where we’re going to different places in Maine and hearing from Mainers about what issues are important to them. As part of our Deep Dive, we’re doing this first on child care, but we want to use this feedback to help inform what future Deep Dives can be about.

Where does this series go and what are we going to hear?

Through those four lenses we hear many different voices, and there are also some amusing things that probably many people might not be familiar with. Just a little bit of history: Did you know that the United States had federally subsidized child care during World War II? And here in Maine that meant places like Brunswick and South Portland.

We discover interesting tidbits like that, but also we hear from these different voices. One of the things we heard about was just how hard it is to find child care in Maine, and here’s a little bit from a mom who moved to the state from the West Coast.

“I was kind of hoping it would be like Oregon. I didn’t realize, you know, there’s less industry here, that it’s sparsely populated. I kind of had the assumption — maybe, you know, it’s just lack of research — I had the assumption that it would be easier here and more affordable. I don’t think moving to Maine was the best move for my family. I don’t. It’s been really, really hard.”

So, of course, difficult for people at all levels. But another group of voices that we hear from in the series are the child care providers, and what we learned is that there are so many costs to running one of these businesses: fire marshals, state expectations, insurance, workman’s comp and especially payroll. So it’s a challenge. It’s something that affects many different people on many different levels.

What are the details? Listeners should know.

I just want to emphasize we’ve never done this at Maine Public — that is, to take this effort where the entire news department is pushing in a singular direction at once. So Deep Dive is a new initiative for us. I think it strengthens our commitment to in-depth quality reporting and journalism. And there are really compelling stories and approaches to be heard.

In addition to the stories, we’re putting together an event, coming up Monday, July 8, at the Portland Public Library. The public is invited to listen to our series, come out, learn a little bit more about child care and talk about the issues. So I hope you can make it to that.

We’re going to launch the series this coming Monday. Maine Public Deep Dive on child care starting Monday across Morning Edition, Here And Now and All Things Considerd. We’re going to be online at mainepublic.org/childcare and, of course, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Parkside teacher Gina Thompson as Mindy Wood.

Maine Public’s Deep Dive: Childcare in Maine is made possible, in part, by the John T. Gorman Foundation and United Way’s Women United.