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Issues & Ale recap: Child care

Michigan’s wavering spring weather was in our favor this week as Issues & Ale took the discussion outside for the first time this year. Our panelists and listeners joined us on the patio of J.B.’s Smokehouse in Canton for a discussion on the state of child care in Michigan.

Michigan Radio’s Doug Tribou hosted the discussion, bringing his own experience as a father of two young girls who has encountered these issues firsthand. Doug was joined by fellow parents and experts in children’s education and care in Michigan:

  • Annette Sobocinski - Executive Director at Child Care Network – a non-profit organization that supports children, families, and child care providers in Southeast Michigan.
  • Jennifer Crutchfield - Associate teacher at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Children’s Center or NCCC.
  • Ron French - Senior Writer for Bridge Magazine, frequently covering education, politics and public policy issues, including issues related to child care in the state.

The audience that evening was filled with early education and child care professionals as well as parents, of course, and a few little ones tagged along too. Early in the conversation, our host took a moment to poll the audience; some agreed availability of care was a major challenge, more suggested quality of care was a bigger concern; but all hands were raised high when asked how many considered cost the biggest worry when it comes to child care.
Panelist Ron French described the impact of this cost on children's and families’ futures.

“For a middle class family, it’s cheaper to send a kid to U of M than to be in four years of high quality child care,” French said. “You want to get your children into as high quality care as possible, so you’re willing to put that money away for that; at the same time you’re doing that, you cannot save money for college. So, it’s a cycle that really needs to be broken in some way.”

Although it’s not all bad news. Annette Sobocinski explained while overall there has been a decrease in the number of licensed providers and programs in Michigan, it’s important to note that in the last five years especially, the state has seen a greater effort by government to improve the quality of child care services, and she says that is an important improvement.

Still, there were many challenges highlighted in the discussion that night, these included high costs for parents, a lack of professionals in the field, wage issues within the field, limited political and governmental investment in public and private care resources, inconsistencies in understanding what meets the standards of quality, and so on. When it came down to it, the majority of the crowd agreed: it all comes back to money.

"What [stands] out is how much child care shapes people’s lives today,” French said. He cited the many ways in which the lives of parents are almost dictated by something as simple as how they will get care for their children. From people waiting to have children because they can’t afford care or care for multiple children, people choosing where they might live if they need to live near a relative to help with child care, and the waitlists involved in getting into quality care facilities.

On the other side of the issue, our panelists also discussed the struggles facing the staff and professionals providing child care. While parents are often finding care unaffordable, child care professionals struggle with the low wages. Jennifer Crutchfield explained her experience working in the field, saying that pay will inevitably impact quality. When professionals need to pay off their own educational debt so that they can have the credentials to provide quality care – which not all staff have – they feel the cost crunch as well. French and Sobocinski agreed, citing the impacts of accepting lower quality on the overall development of Michigan children. French said to the audience, “We need to pay more to the people who impact our society most.” In light of these pay issues, facilities are also being impacted by experiencing constant understaffing across the industry.

“[Child care and funding for it] is one of those issues where policy has not kept up with the changes in society, particularly in Michigan,” French said. “We are way behind the other states... and it affects the economy and our ability to draw workers to the state.”

Many of the comments and questions from our audience members applauded some of their own employer’s efforts to help with child care costs; other parents explained their struggle to keep working in the state because of the challenges to find good care. The panelists were encouraged by these comments because once the topic starts affecting businesses and workers – they say, that’s what will finally get politicians interested. “This is how we get the attention of politicians, by pointing out how [child care struggles] impact the economy,” French suggested.

“There’s a growing consensus in Lansing that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” French says. In his opinion, the best way to help relieve the burden on parents and give child care the attention it deserves in our society, he says, “we need to look at these services as infrastructure, it is infrastructure for society...we’re going to have to look at it as something just as important as filling the potholes.”

Our panelists all agreed that the issues impacting child care are now getting more attention and they’re hopeful that will mean the burden on parents will start to be relieved soon.

One Issues & Ale guest, Tammy Arakelian, a consultant at Early Childhood District and School Services with Oakland Schools, heard the need for more information across all sides of this issue and offered the following resources for fellow listeners to use as resources for themselves and to share with their local, state, and national lawmakers to help keep this conversation going.

(*Note: Michigan Radio is providing these resources as information, without endorsement.)

Listen to the full conversation above.