In an analysis earlier this month, the N.H. Fiscal Policy Institute largely attributed the state’s labor shortage, which is plaguing businesses big and small, to a child-care shortage. Single mom Ianna Zoda of Nashua could have been on the cover.

Without child care, Zoda cannot return to her retail job at the Pheasant Lane Mall, where she was on track to be an assistant manager. Without a job, she cannot afford child care for her three kids, all under 7, or even a car to get them there. Zoda sees two options: an onsite day care at the mall or a remote job flexible enough to accommodate her kids’ needs.

“I want to be able to work. I think working is really good for people,” Zoda said. “Not being able to work really sucks.”

New Hampshire has long had a child-care problem.

Prior to COVID-19, the state’s 33,000 licensed child-care spots for children under 6 were only 60 percent of what was needed, according to a February study of workforce constraints commissioned by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The shortage has grown more dire as the pandemic has forced child-care providers to close or scale back. It remains so as finances, staff shortages, or both have made it hard to impossible for them to reopen — even as the state has invested millions in pandemic relief in child care.

It’s left many parents, and especially women, with few child-care options: rely on family, friends, or unlicensed in-home providers or leave the workforce.

“I think it may be the single most critical issue that’s preventing people from going back to work right now,” said Dave Juvet, interim president of the Business and Industry Association. “And often it’s not money that’s keeping them from putting their child into child care. It’s just that there’s no available child-care facilities to put their children into no matter what the cost is.”

Family and child advocates think the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan making its way through Congress could be a solution, especially for families for whom cost is a barrier. The plan would extend recent changes to the child tax credit that allows lower- and middle-income parents to get upfront monthly payments and give low-income families like Zoda’s universal preschool and paid family leave. It would also cap child-care costs at 7 percent of household income, a change that would benefit an estimated 40.2 percent of New Hampshire families with child-care costs, according to a July study by the Carsey School for Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

In 2019, child care in New Hampshire averaged $13,044 a year for an infant and $23,647 for two children under 6, amounts that equal 94 percent of a low-income couple’s annual income, according to the Department of Health and Human Services study.

Advocates see the federal plan as a path to lifting lower-income families out of poverty, ensuring high-quality child care for children, and mitigating the workforce shortage that’s plaguing economic recovery here and beyond.

Suraj Budathoki of Manchester agrees.

Budathoki and his wife, Ganga Thapa, started their own businesses shortly before the pandemic: she, a beauty salon in Salem, and he, a home health-care service in Concord. When COVID-19 shuttered their child-care center, they couldn’t afford the tuition to send their children, ages 5 and 10, to an alternative site.

The couple shifted their hours, worked alternating days, relied on neighbors and Thapa’s parents, and, when there was no other option, Budathoki took the kids to work. Universal preschool would have brought some relief, Budathoki said.

Relief finally arrived last month with the reopening of schools; with their son now old enough for kindergarten, both kids can attend. “I don’t have words to express how that helped,” Budathoki said. “That (the American Families Plan) is what we need. If Congress really wants to help working-class families like me, that’s what we need.”

Lorena Salas of Manchester left her job of five years when the pandemic closed her 11-year-old daughter’s school and her employer declined her request for a flexible schedule to manage remote learning. Even with her husband’s paycheck, the family fell behind on rent and child-care payments for their 5-year-old daughter. They had to pull her out of the program.

Salas was able to return to work once school reopened this year, but the family is still struggling to pay overdue bills and get back on track. “I don’t want to cry, but it’s overwhelming,” Salas said. “I’ve got a job. I’ve always worked. My husband has always had a job. It’s just overwhelming.”

Tiffany Roberts, a mom of five, was in a position to solve her own child-care challenge after her daughter developed neurological issues during the pandemic and needed a setting that was quieter and more supportive than what she had. Roberts added a Montessori-based preschool to her Saco Valley Gymnastics Training Center in Conway.

She’s got a waiting list 30-people long and expects she’ll still have one after plumbing upgrades allow her to double her capacity this fall. Teacher Ashley Hodgkins of Conway, who had relied on her mother for child care, enrolled her 2-year-old daughter for the socialization opportunity, school-like setting and trained educators unavailable in her mother’s in-home setting.

“Since she has started, we have been so thrilled with her social-emotional growth and her progress in following routines and structures,” Hodgkins said. “As an educator, I appreciate purposeful classroom settings that are designed specifically for children … with age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate materials.”

Hodgkins said Roberts’ Adventures in Learning is reasonably priced and she wishes it was available to all families, regardless of income. It’s hard to find because it’s so expensive to offer.

Roberts pays higher wages than other providers, and offers health benefits and paid time off because she wants to hire and keep good teachers. Doing that would be impossible with only the tuition she charges parents, which is what most child-care centers rely on. Roberts said her school can stay open only because she subsidizes it with income from her gymnastic program.

“Child care seems to be something in our country that is built on the backs of women who are willing to make sacrifices,” she said. “But it’s filling a need, and it’s something I want to do.”

This report originally appeared in N.H. Bulletin.

This report originally appeared in N.H. Bulletin.