I was born in 1994, on the eve of welfare reform, when our state and many others around the country cut a few too many loops in the social safety net, leaving a gaping hole in public support for, among other things, child care for families in need. For my entire life, child care has been positioned as a personal responsibility: individual families must navigate the child care market themselves. But we know that the child care market doesn’t work for all kinds of people – the demand is there, but 50% of Michiganders live in a child care desert, and the options that do exist are often unaffordable – and when markets fail, public solutions are required.
Last week, I had the honor of attending the 30th annual child care advocates meeting, Moving Forward, hosted by the National Women’s Law Center, to learn about how the rest of the country is working to find child care solutions for those in need. While we’re still fighting to make the basic case that child care is a public issue worthy of increased public support, I left the week with two key thoughts for child care policy advocacy in Michigan: that we cannot have equitable child care without broad representation from families and providers at the decision-making table, and that the best strategy for winning a statewide child care investment will be one executed in partnership with and with the leadership of those very same providers, parents, and caregivers. These are by no means groundbreaking insights, but they’re critical nonetheless for the success of child care advocacy in Michigan.
One panel focused on the need for child care options for those who work outside the “traditional” hours of 9am – 5pm. I learned from a former restaurant worker and from a 24/7 child care provider about the scheduling difficulties that come with non-traditional-hours child care; about the need for workers who are particularly skilled at getting young children to go to sleep; about the crucial role of family, friends, and neighbors in this space; and about the ways that many industries operating at nontraditional hours are unconscionably inhospitable to parents or caregivers with child care needs. As Mary Beth Testa of the National Association for Family Child Care said, we must pay attention to “bedtime best practice!”
As a 23-year-old who can barely keep my houseplants alive and who had a unique FFN child care situation growing up, I know that I needed to learn from parent and provider voices in order to break down and rebuild my assumptions of what Michigan’s ideal child care system would look like. Understanding non-traditional hours for child care is just one example of how finding an equitable child care solution will similarly depend on whether we include at the decision-making table low-income families and providers, families and providers of color, and others in need who are underserved by our current child care system and subsidies. We need folks from every corner to have a role in improving our child care system if we want it to work.
For that same reason, child care advocacy will succeed in the long run as long as the voices and power of parents, providers, and caregivers, those who carry the daily burden of making the child care system happen, especially those who face the greatest challenges, are held at the center. Policymakers need stories and public pressure not only to understand what kinds of solutions are needed, but also to buy in to the need for child care solutions in the first place.
We seek to raise parent, provider, and caregiver voices through our KidSpeaks, FamilySpeaks, CommunitySpeaks, and candidate forums, and we will continue to eagerly partner with organizations that promote authentic voice and equity as foundational to their work. The more voices are mobilized, the more easily we’ll be able to make the case that child care is not just a personal responsibility but a cause we must collectively support. Without parents, providers, and caregivers, we will never achieve the child care solution Michigan needs.
Bobby Dorigo Jones is the Policy and Outreach Associate at Michigan’s Children.