Guest Column

High-quality child care is good for business

December 12, 2014
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Business managers know this to be true: To prevent absenteeism and turnover among employees with children, it’s vital that workers know their kids are in safe, stable and high-quality child care when they’re away from home.

Though child care isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be as a factor for business success, it is a critical component for Michigan’s economic growth, according to a recent report by the Michigan League for Public Policy, “Failure to Invest in High-Quality Child Care Hurts Children and the State’s Economy.”

Since 2005, spending for state-subsidized child care has dropped in Michigan by 70 percent — from $479 million to $139 million — prompting serious concern, given that two-thirds of preschool children live in families where all parents work.

Today, the average cost of child care — more than $10,000 annually for an infant in Michigan — is often a family’s greatest budgetary expense, rivaling housing costs in some cases. For low-wage workers particularly, child care costs have become unaffordable. It’s these workers who are targeted for child care reimbursements, as the majority that qualify for the program are working families with incomes below 121 percent of poverty (or $22,448 for a family of three).

Today, 22,000 Michigan parents receive publicly subsidized care — a significant two-thirds drop from the 65,000 who received it in 2005. Kent and Ottawa counties did not escape the state’s disinvestment, receiving nearly 75 percent and 71 percent fewer dollars, respectively, in that period, according to the report.

High unemployment and changes in the economy explain some of the decline in Michigan’s child care system but would not account for the current underfunding. Poor public policy decisions on eligibility requirements and provider payments have seriously weakened the system and now must be re-evaluated if Michigan’s economic growth is a priority.

Perhaps most disturbing is this: The report finds Michigan has too few inspectors to ensure compliance with even the basic health and safety regulations in facilities that serve all children in licensed child care. This gross underfunding was cited in a recent federal audit that concluded Michigan does not have enough inspectors with 150 cases per inspector — triple that of national standards. In May 2014, the state employed 68 child care licensing inspectors for 10,397 child care facilities.

In a recent unannounced site visit and audit of 20 licensed family and group child care homes that received child-care funds in Michigan, federal inspectors found that all 20 providers did not comply with one or more state licensing requirements related to health and safety of children, and half did not have the requisite criminal record and protective services checks for staff. Among audit findings were a blocked fire exit, hazardous substances within the reach of children, a crib recalled for safety reasons and unsupervised toddlers — all violations of state licensing rules.

Putting young children in unknown or questionable surroundings is a risk we cannot afford to take, especially given the importance of the first few years of life. We know today that learning begins at birth and many children spend most of their waking hours in child care so it is critical that care helps children learn the basic language, cognitive and emotional skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In June 2014, 40 percent of all children in state-subsidized child care were under the age of 4, and more than 60 percent were under age 6.

Recently, federal lawmakers approved a bipartisan bill that resulted in the first major re-authorization of the child care subsidy program to states in nearly two decades. Essentially, it calls for more help for struggling families and more inspectors for child care operations but offers little new funding.

In the day-to-day reality of family life, parents can’t work if they can’t find reliable and safe child care. Child care providers — who make up an important sector of the state’s workforce — try but struggle to bridge the gap between their costs and what parents can pay.

If an economic comeback is what we seek, we must look at the evidence of Michigan’s under-performing child care system and make some long-overdue changes, as outlined in the League’s report, for the sake of our children, families and Michigan’s economic future.

It’s time for Michigan to invest once again in the state’s child care program and truly make it as family- and business-friendly as it could be.

The report may be found online.

Gilda Z. Jacobs is president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a state-level policy institute dedicated to economic opportunity for all. She is a former state representative and senator from Huntington Woods.

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