My days of raising young children are long gone, but I remember well my biggest parenting struggle and cause of angst—finding child care that I trusted. I am not unique. Two of every three young children have working parents and many are facing the same struggle.
Virtually all parents consider their children their most precious gift, and they want child care that is safe, nurturing, consistent and reliable. They want care that can help their children take advantage of the rapid growth that happens in the earliest years—in language, emotional attachment, and social and cognitive skills.
Sadly, not enough has changed in the 25 years since I was in the child care market. Despite rhetoric about the importance of children and new scientific research about the critical window of opportunity for brain development in the earliest years of life, child care providers are still some of the most underpaid workers in our state, with wages similar to dishwashers and fast food cooks (who are also underpaid).
When my youngest son was in child care, I worried about the turnover of child care providers in his center. Just when he was getting attached and feeling comfortable with caregivers, they would leave. On one occasion I went to a downtown Lansing sandwich shop to pick up some lunch, and found one of his favorite teachers behind the counter. She told me that she missed the kids and loved the work, but couldn’t afford to stay.
What does this say about how we value our children? And mine is a story of someone who had the means to purchase higher-quality care. What about the many parents who do not, and are forced to rely on a patchwork of relatives, neighbors and friends who do not want to provide long-term care, or are facing health or other hardships of their own?
Despite the low wages paid to child care providers, child care is a major expense for low- and moderate-income families—exceeding the cost of housing and even college tuition. A family with poverty-level wages would need to spend virtually all its income (92%) to put two children in a high-quality child care center.
The governor has proposed an increase in funding next year for Michigan’s child care subsidy program, with the goal of raising reimbursements to providers willing to care for children from families with low incomes. This will not completely bridge the gap between our rhetoric about valuing children and the reality of the state’s child care system, but it is an important step forward—with a needed focus on the families that can least afford high-quality child care, and the children who need it most. I commend the governor for this important step and hope you will too.
— Pat Sorenson