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Maine’s investments in children are paying off, according to new national study

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Maine’s investments in children are paying off, according to new national study

Oct 13, 2023 | 12:03 pm ET
By Emma Davis
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Maine’s investments in children are paying off, according to new national study
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Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) sponsored legislation last session that doubled salary stipends for child care workers, increased eligibility for the child care affordability program, and expanded preschool programs for children with disabilities. (Daria Nipot/Getty Images)

Consider this scenario: a single parent with an infant and a toddler who works full time at a minimum wage job. They recently took 12 weeks off from work to care for her infant, the parental leave that’s allowed under the Federal Family Medical Leave Act. Their children now attend a child care center, which charges 25% less than the state’s market rate and they receive a subsidy to help offset the costs of child care as well as nutrition benefits. 

In Maine, that parent would take in an estimated $39,018 a year—an amount that includes minimum wage earnings, paid family leave if available, net federal and state benefits, and deducts child care expenses. 

If this parent lived elsewhere in the U.S., however, available resources would look much different. They’d earn the most in the District of Columbia, $47,051, and the least if they live in Georgia, $20,560.  

This scenario, while hypothetical, illustrates how varied the available resources are for a family of three based on state policy choices, which is the focus of a report released Thursday from early childhood policy experts at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Vanderbilt’s Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center annually assesses each state’s progress toward effective investment in children through policymaking. The center’s work is based on the science of the developing child, which shows that prenatally up to age three is the most rapid and sensitive period of development, laying the foundation for all subsequent health and wellbeing. Its roadmap categorizes this science into policy goals, the idea being that if each state can achieve these goals, its children will live in environments that promote healthy development. 

Maine has made more advancements compared with most other states in passing effective policies in the past year, according to the report. The report positions Maine as a leader because of the recent passage of a paid family leave law, increased investment in child care and a new refundable state child tax credit, specifically. 

Overall, findings point to a positive trend in state action to reduce poverty and improve child wellbeing through paid family leave, earned income tax credits and other evidence-based policies.

Maine’s investments in children are paying off, according to new national study

Maine’s advancements 

Maine ranked 18 out of the 50 states and D.C. in the amount of resources a working parent has available to support their family in 2023. In 2022, Maine ranked 14th. 

Of note, the state budget passed by Gov. Janet Mills in July created a one-time startup fund to establish the state’s first paid family leave program, legislation sponsored by Sen. Matthea Daughtry (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Kristen Cloutier (D-Lewiston). The program, starting in 2026, will offer 12 weeks of paid time off to workers in both the private and public sector.

In the budget, lawmakers also waived premiums and expanded eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Also, over the next two fiscal years, $59.1 million of the budget will go to child care initiatives, many of which have been led by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash). 

Jackson sponsored legislation last session that doubled salary stipends for child care workers, increased eligibility for the child care affordability program, and expanded preschool programs for children with disabilities. 

Jackson intends to build on this work next session, according to his communications director Christine Kirby. 

Amid rise in child poverty rates, Maine child tax credit expected to buoy 3,500 youth

Kirby said he already has introduced legislation for providers to be reimbursed based on overall enrollment numbers, rather than attendance. “Providers already operate on thin margins. This type of change would provide some much-needed stability,” she added.

Also passed this year, Maine replaced its dependent tax credit program with a new program that increases the credit amount to $350 per dependent from $300 and is fully refundable, making the program available to about 73,000 Maine children whose families make too little to qualify for the current credit. 

The Vanderbilt report measures each state’s achievement toward implementing 12 effective solutions that research has shown impact at least one of the policy goals that define the conditions that children need to thrive. These solutions are broken down further into policies and strategies. For policies, the researchers identified  clear evidence-based “policy levers” as a measure of success, while they did not provide clear guidance on how each state should implement each strategy.

Maine adopted nearly all the recommended policies, only missing paid family leave because its program has not yet taken effect. 

In 2019, Maine expanded Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, making it so parents earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level are eligible for Medicaid, or MaineCare. It also surpassed the recommended amounts for minimum wage and refundable state earned income tax credit (EITC). 

Maine also offers some of the effective strategies identified within the report, such as reducing the administrative burden of applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and supporting Early Head Start, a federal school readiness program for low-income children. 

Few states achieving all, but many make progress

Maine’s investments in children are paying off, according to new national study

Taken together, the four policies highlighted in the report — Medicaid expansion, paid family leave, a higher minimum wage and a refundable EITC — can provide essential broad-based economic and family supports, said Cynthia Osborne, the center’s executive director, during a virtual summit Thursday.  

While nine states have fully implemented all four of the policies, in nine other states, families don’t currently have access to even one of the policies. 

Osborne also drew attention to state progress on some of the effective strategies identified by the center, namely child care subsidies and community-based doulas. 

Low-income families face barriers to accessing affordable, reliable and high-quality childcare, she explained. The average annual cost of center-based child care in 2022 was $13,083 for infants and $10,125 for 4-year-olds.

While Maine’s income eligibility threshold for the child care subsidy is at or above 85% of the state median income, a key marker identified in the report, it still needs to limit copayments and set more equitable reimbursement rates. 

Separately, community-based doulas — who offer non-clinical emotional, physical, and informational support — were added as an effective strategy this year because new evidence showed that when women, particularly women of color, were offered a doula to support them during the pregnancy, delivery and the postpartum period, they had better birth outcomes. 

Sixteen states provide some level of support for community-based doulas. Maine has yet to make progress on this front. 

While the report showed overall progress across the country toward implementing effective policies to support children, the summit also drew attention to those that are ending. 

One of the last remaining Covid-19 emergency relief programs for child care funding expired at the end of last month. Also, the Medicaid unwinding that began last May has pushed over seven and a half million people off of Medicaid, including 1.6 million children. Child poverty more than doubled last year, which many attribute to the end of the expanded federal Child Tax Credit.

“What each of these crises has in common is that it’s the result of policy choices,” Osborne said, “and collectively they demonstrate how important the choices that we make are for supporting children and families.”