Child Care Realities

February 19, 2014 – This month marked the end of my maternity leave and the start of Lennon’s time in child care.  As a mom whose day job focuses on early childhood public policy issues, I am familiar with the ins and outs of what a high quality child care provider looks like and subsequently, what that means for costs.  As we were shopping around for child care providers; I, of course, was asking about Great Start to Quality ratings, curriculum, whether programs utilized a lower teacher-to-baby ratio than required by state licensing, and other questions that a typical parent searching for child care might not think to ask.  Lennon now spends a couple days a week in a NAEYC accredited, five-star rated program that we all love.  And our monthly finances have taken a significant hit to reflect that.

I say this because at the same time that Lennon was embarking on his child care experiences, Governor Snyder made some recommendations to strengthen Michigan’s public child care subsidy system – the Child Development and Care (CDC) program – in his budget presentation early this month.  One of his recommendations is to provide tiered reimbursement rates such that higher quality child care providers would receive a higher rate.  In theory, this is a step in the right direction since higher quality care is more expensive.  However, if you take a step back and look at the CDC program, you’ll see that this is a positive recommendation built upon a very weak structure.

For Lennon’s child care, we pay a monthly fee for his spot at the center.  In fact, his child care center doesn’t even accept payment on an hourly, daily, or weekly rate because they know that they need to rely on a certain amount of revenue each month to maintain the operations of their quality program.  For families who rely on the state’s child care subsidy, providers are reimbursed on an hourly rate.  Clearly this makes it extremely challenging for child care providers to support their businesses if they have to depend on on a less reliable hourly payment based on attendance.

Additionally, Michigan’s reimbursement rates are pitifully low, making it impossible for a low-income family who relies on the child care subsidy to afford a high quality program.  The current rate for an infant to attend a 5-star rated program in a child care center is $3.75 an hour.  Governor Snyder is proposing to increase that rate to $4.00 an hour for 3-star rated programs, $4.25 an hour for 4-star rated programs, and $4.50 an hour for 5-star rated programs.  Finding a high quality child care provider willing to accept $4.50 an hour to care for an infant is pretty much impossible.  For the very low-income families who are eligible for the CDC program, paying the difference between the subsidy and the true cost of care would be extremely challenging if not impossible.

What does this mean?  While tiered reimbursement is a positive step, Michigan must also restructure its payment system to better support parents and providers.  Not only do we need to address our hourly reimbursement system, but we also need to take a closer look at the reimbursement rates and what the marketplace demands.

Another one of Governor Snyder’s recommended changes to the CDC program is to increase the number of reimbursable hours from 80 to 90 hours in a two-week period.  This is a step in the right direction but continues to fall short.  At Lennon’s child care center – understanding that most full-time individuals work at least 8.5 hours a day once you factor in a lunch break, and that parents need time to travel to and from their workplace to the center – they allow parents to leave their children in care for up to 9.5 hours each day.  At that rate, we could access 95 hours of child care in a two-week period.  If I had to work multiple jobs to support my family, I would clearly need more hours of child care.  So while the Governor’s recommendation moves the state towards better supporting full-time working parents, it continues to fall short of the realities of what parents need.  Michigan should look to what many states have done and have no cap on the maximum number of subsidized child care hours that our state’s lowest-income working families can access.

In a nutshell, I’m glad to see the Governor begin to take a closer look at the CDC program and to move Michigan towards better supporting low income families.  These small steps are steps in the right direction.  However, to truly support families, we must consider more significant shifts to the structure of the CDC program.  While I feel fortunate to be able to send Lennon to a high quality child care program that provides a nurturing environment that promotes healthy development and early learning, I know that the children who could benefit the most from his program are the ones who likely can’t access it.  Michigan must do more to ensure that our state’s most challenged young children can benefit from high quality child care experiences – the quality experiences that can ensure all children have a great start in life.

-Mina Hong