Facing the realities of child care and work

Twenty-plus years ago when I was the mother of three young children, I worried—like most parents do—about finding child care that I trusted on my budget, as well as how to juggle my job with the inevitable childhood colds, ear infections and bouts of pink eye.

Both seemed like mountains to climb. My first two children were born 14 months apart, so for a period I needed to find infant care for two. High-quality infant care was not only in short supply, but it came at a higher cost. My third child suffered from asthma, so he was frequently sick, changing my work availability without notice.

I was lucky. I had a job that provided me flexibility to deal with child care changes and sick days. My work was largely during standard working hours when there was a greater supply of care options, and I didn’t have children with special needs. I also had the resources to pay for higher-quality child care, which cost more than my mortgage at the time.

But, the reality is that I didn’t know what high-quality child care was at the time. I tried to rely on my uninformed instincts and word of mouth, but I didn’t feel confident that I was doing what was best for my children.

Today, thanks to the work of the Office of Great Start and the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, parents have some tools to evaluate quality in child care settings, including a five-star rating system for child care providers.

MI child care challenges opportunities graph 1Unfortunately, many parents still can’t afford higher-quality child care, and have to rely on informal relationships with neighbors and relatives—many of whom are juggling work, health, financial and other struggles of their own. The cost of child care for two children in a Michigan center exceeds $18,000 per year, consuming over 60% of the wages of a family with income at 150% of poverty ($36,900 annually for a family of four).

The Michigan Legislature recently approved some long-needed increases in child care spending, including funds to boost payments to child care providers—many of whom have such low incomes that they are themselves eligible for some forms of public assistance. Also approved was a small bump in the income eligibility cut-off for child care subsidies (from 125% of poverty to 130%).

This is good news for Michigan families but we have a long way to go. The number of families receiving child care assistance has fallen dramatically, in part because of the state’s stringent income eligibility guidelines and disincentives for providers.

The need for affordable child care remains high. Unemployment has dropped in Michigan and nationwide since the Great Recession, but many of the new jobs come with very low wages. Between June of 2016 and 2017, Michigan was one of only 10 states with declining average weekly wages—adjusted for inflation—for workers in private sector jobs.

In a new Budget Brief, the League outlines needed child care reforms including a further expansion of eligibility and child care practices that provide incentives for providers to care for children who receive a state subsidy.

We can and must invest in child care as a two-generational strategy to ensure that parents can work to support their children, and children have the benefit of a high-quality early learning experiences. Both are critical investments in the state’s future economy and workforce.

— Pat Sorenson