Building an Equitable Child Care System

As the price of groceries, gas, and other essentials continues to rise, so, too, does the cost of child care. In fact, a new report from Child Care Aware of America found child care prices outpaced inflation again in 2021, for the third straight year. A recent survey of nearly 15,000 parents and caregivers of children under age six around the country – including several hundred here in Kent County – found that 39 percent of women respondents had left the workforce of reduced their work hours since the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to the lack of affordable child care.

While the fallout from COVID-19 has put the industry on even shakier ground, lack of quality, affordable care for families, and low pay for early educators have been normal for years. Quality ECE can cost families more than a housing payment or college tuition. At the same time, many early educators – who often hold college degrees – are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. In 2019, the median pay for a child care provider in Michigan was $11.13 an hour, and for a preschool teacher it was $14.89.

“If we have centers that charge more in order to pay a livable wage for teachers, it will just create elite programs because only affluent people will be able to afford it,” explains Starr Morgan, executive director of the Grand Rapids Early Discovery Center, which serves children from infancy through preschool. “Most ECE teachers do not make enough money to enroll their own children in the centers where they work.”

Chana Edmond-Verley, CEO of Vibrant Futures, agrees. “Families that can afford to pay for quality early care and education, pay for it. Those that cannot fall through the cracks. When we don’t provide early learning for young children, we’re really denying them the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Given the disproportionality in poverty rates, Black and Brown children are most likely to miss out on that opportunity.”

Low wages and benefits, regulatory burdens, long hours with no breaks, and lack of support and respect have taken a toll on the industry, with Michigan losing one-third of its ECE providers over the last decade. The rate of decline has only accelerated since COVID hit. The largest gaps are in traditionally underserved communities. Nearly half of families in Michigan live in “child care deserts,” meaning there aren’t enough ECE providers to accommodate the young children who live in those neighborhoods. The problem is most severe in rural and urban communities.

Public policy is finally starting to catch up to that reality. The state budget approved with bipartisan support last fall used COVID-relief funds to invest $1.4 billion in ECE. The changes are making care more affordable for families, providing additional money and support to ECE providers, and expanding eligibility for public subsidy for ECE.

Edmond-Verley calls it “an incredible investment,” but there’s a catch. it is paid for with one-time money and is all short-term.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to pilot these things to see which ones leverage the greatest impact. As early return-on-investment markers become apparent, we need to think about how we build the infrastructure we need to move forward after these investments are gone. We have to really rethink this as a public good, and it should be.”

Those in the industry agree there is no market solution – families can’t afford to pay more, and the labor-intensive industry can’t cut costs. Instead, more money is needed to attract and retain talented teachers and caregivers. Experts say meaningful change can only come with significant and sustained public investment.

That doesn’t mean our community is waiting idly. Kent County launched an innovative “shared services” initiative to provide back-end business support to child care centers and family homes so providers can focus their time and energy on the kids in the care.

“As we look to not just rebuild but reimagine a better child care system, elevation of the profession, statewide solutions, increased wages, and business management support will be essential for recovery,” said Kristen Sobolewski, Shared Services project manager for First Steps Kent. “Mainspring Early Care Alliance (previously known as Shared Services Project) is one solution that is bringing together in-home child care providers in order to share best practices and explore shared business infrastructure. It will strengthen the child care sector and the local economy.”

Ensuring quality ECE is accessible to all families that want and need it isn’t just critical for today’s economy. Our future is dependent on it. The earliest years of a child’s life are the most critical for brain development. If parents are at work or school, their young children must be with loving and responsive adults, who can nurture their curiosity, social-emotional development, and language and pre-literacy skills.

“As a society, we have to stop looking at child care as babysitting or a service that simply allows parents to work,” Morgan says. “We have to start looking at this as education. Children are learning, especially in this time of critical brain connections.”

Edmond-Verley adds, “When children get what they need early, they’ll be able to develop to reach their fullest potential. That will give us stronger talent and will attract more business to our community. It’s a mutually reinforcing opportunity that over time will advantage the entire community.”

Here are resources to learn more about the importance of quality early care and education and how to make it the norm for all young children in Kent County.

First Steps Kent “The Case for Child Care”

Michigan League for Public Policy child care resources

Think Babies child care policies and advocacy