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Fixing Michigan’s Child Care System – a Big Lift but What a Payoff

September 4, 2019 – In one my favorite coffee shops in downtown Lansing, I arrived far ahead of the crowd one morning and had the chance to chit chat with an affable shop worker while she set up for the morning rush. A sandy-haired little boy sat at a nearby table littered with crayons, markers, coloring materials and an imitation toy I-pad. “Cute kid? Is he yours?” I asked, approaching Suzie, around 40-ish. “My grandson,” she answered, looking stressed. “His mother needed help today. He’s really quiet, though.”

In an instant, my heart filled in the rest of this sad picture. The young mom didn’t have a reliable childcare option for her boy, so her go-to was her mom. Also a working woman in a low-paid field, Suzie presumably reports to supervisors more willing or able to accommodate a small child dropped into one of their four-tops. Well, at least for a while.

So here is the dilemma of childcare – or missing childcare – in Michigan. It’s a Rubik’s cube style problem waiting for a big answer. But what if we could solve that problem for working parents, especially those toiling near the bottom of the income-earning chart, and in the process lift them up and boost Michigan’s economy? What if parents had reliable child care that offered a safe, affordable and enriched environment for their tikes? The answer is, we certainly can do it if we exercise our public will and political muscle. We can do it by moving public policies that make sense for our friends and neighbors and in doing so change big systems – workplace, the economy, and education – for the better.

At Michigan’s Children, I frequently hear a gravelly voice shouting into a phone or person on the other side of the drywall between us: “Forget Fixing the Roads! Forget the Roads! It’s Child Care. Child Care! Fix that!” Michigan’s Children has made improving child care a major pillar of its Public Policy Playbook this year and previously by raising awareness among influence-leaders and grassroots advocates, amplifying the voices of families in crisis, and working directly with policymakers and lawmakers. Now new research from the Urban Institute offers interesting insights for advocates like us working to improve child care in Michigan. It starts with a few “What If?” propositions and captures data that paints a different picture of what our state workforce and economy would look like if only we got child care right. If we could raise our eligibility for the subsidy to say, 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, there’d be big gains in the number of people entering the workplace, moving tons of kids and families out of poverty, and improving the state’s economic climate.

Sounds good? But here’s the problem. While our state receives federal funding from the Child Care and Development Fund, the government’s major program for supporting child care for families earning low wages, and while we have one of the lowest eligibility levels in the country, fewer than half of those eligible actually receiving it. Why? Let me drop this bomb right now. Because we have a seriously broken child care subsidy system in Michigan that doesn’t work for families or providers. Evidence of that is that many home-based providers are retiring and the system’s low pay isn’t attracting enough new providers; in many counties, licensed care for infants and toddlers is hard to find, leaving “child care deserts” around the state where there just aren’t available providers for families who need them. Child care is mostly unavailable during nights and weekends when many parents work, or for those whose work schedules are often unpredictable. Others who would like to ask family, friends, and neighbors to care for their kids aren’t accessing the subsidy either because its rules restrict who the subsidy can go to. Then there are those beleaguered parents who have a child with a mental health illness or behavioral problem. They’re frequently dropped by providers who don’t have the basic training to work with these kids, a problem that could be fixed if the state employed more certified mental health consultants to advise providers and parents through those situations. All of these reasons add up to why more families in Michigan don’t access child care subsidies.

By raising the child care subsidy eligibility from roughly 130 percent to 150 percent of poverty (resulting in a maximum annual salary threshold of $31,995 a year for a family of three) and ensuring access to the subsidy for all families who are eligible for it, twice as many children would receive the subsidy in Michigan from fewer than 35,000 to 79,300 kids. More children would be safe and secure and engaged in learning and personal growth. More parents would be able to work with peace of mind. With more access to child care for working families, 12,500 more mothers would be able to join the workforce and an additional 24,500 children would emerge from poverty, not insignificant in a state where 1 in 4 children are born into poverty.

Currently, there’s not one set eligibility threshold for the child care subsidy. The guidelines vary by state from 118 percent to 300 percent of poverty, according to the Urban Institute. Michigan is among 15 states with income eligibility at under 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

The study used data pulled from the 2016 American Community Survey and focused on labor force participation and family income. It determined (not surprisingly) that the lack of accessible child care is a major barrier to work for parents because it’s hugely expensive. The national average cost of child care for a child in a child care center is $10,000 a year – rivaling mortgage, rent and a college education. Increasing the state’s child care subsidy would allow more parents to choose quality child care while boosting parents’ employment earnings. The effect on our economy: Fewer people in poverty, and an improvement to our state’s overall economic health.

Of course, changing eligibility alone won’t fix anything if we don’t fix the child care subsidy system in Michigan – a key workplace issue that’s long overdue for a solution. So let’s get to it. Urge your elected leaders in Lansing and Washington to structurally fix the system and ensure we fund it adequately so that more of our families can improve their standard of living, creating a better future for their children and our state. When parents are away at school or work, their kids need to spend time in quality child care, not coffee shops.

-Teri Banas is the Communications Manager for Michigan’s Children, a mom, and coffee drinker.

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