By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — An influx of federal money is expected to put more children from Michigan’s struggling families into child care programs.
Families who meet eligibility requirements, including an income cutoff and employment or high school completion, are able to receive a state subsidy to help with the costs of child care.
Because of the positive effects that quality care can have on children, all families should have a chance to take advantage of it, said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a progressive think tank focusing on social issues.
“The costs of child care are so huge that most low-income people really cannot afford high-quality child care,” Jacobs said. “It needs to be subsidized, it needs to be available, and there needs to be transportation to it.”
Help is on the way for low-income residents. The spending bill signed by President Donald Trump in March boosted funding for child care assistance. The league estimates new funding will approach $70 million in Michigan.
That could mean up to 3,500 more children receiving assistance to attend child care.
That’s the good news. The bad? The number of families receiving child care assistance from the state dropped dramatically for years and is only now starting to rise again, falling from nearly 70,000 in 2003 to 18,381 in 2017 according to state data.
The league is pushing the Legislature to raise the income cutoff for assistance to 200 percent of the poverty level. The current cutoff of 130 percent puts many low-income families in a bind, said Audrey Marvin, the owner of Stepping Stones Child Development Center in Petoskey.
“I know for a fact that I have lost families because they can’t afford the center but they make just enough that they don’t get government assistance,” Marvin said.
The federal funding boost could be crucial, as skyrocketing costs pose a significant barrier for parents looking to maintain a job, according to league communications director Alex Rossman.
Low-income residents are caught in a Catch-22, he said. They can risk sending much of the income from their job to a child care facility, or they can limit their income by not working and caring for the children personally.
The average annual cost of center-based infant care in Michigan — $10,281 — is nearly that of a year of mortgage payments or public college tuition, according to Child Care Aware of America, a Virginia-based nonprofit. Home-based infant care runs $7,179 annually, on average.
It’s unfortunate that high child care costs are a barrier, but given how beneficial it is to young children, the price point is necessary, Rossman said.
“It’s an area in which you don’t want to cut costs or corners,” Rossman said. “The offerings just continue to increase — the quality of food available, the field trips, the technology available.”
Rossman also said that there isn’t a huge difference in costs among child care centers and most quality centers will charge similar amounts.
“It’s not like there’s two Cadillacs of day care and then everyone else is a standard sedan — it’s all relatively high, or you drop down significantly” in quality, Rossman said.
A lack of “big-city, high-end” jobs means child care costs aren’t quite as high in rural Michigan, said Stepping Stones’ Marvin.
However, the income difference also means many parents struggle to send their children to child care in the first place, she said.
“Most of my clientele are the average blue-collar workers that possibly get laid off for four months out of the year,” Marvin said. “We are continually full, but we do have children who need to leave” due to their parents’ inconsistent employment.
Rossman, who is soon to be the father of twins, said even with his professional career child care costs would eat up a significant portion of either his or his wife’s salary.
“All our friends that are parents say that once (their children) start school, then you feel rich,” Rossman said. “Even as someone who was reading and writing a lot about the costs of child care, it didn’t really resonate until pricing it out individually.
“My first thought was like, ‘which one of us is quitting our jobs to just stay home?’” he said.
Marvin, who has four children, is no stranger to this decision. She said she chose to quit her preschool teaching job when her first child was born to focus on child-rearing.
A year later, as Marvin was pregnant with her second child, she decided to use her child development degree and open an in-home daycare center.
“I really don’t think I would’ve been able to leave my kids with somebody else,” Marvin said. “This gave me the opportunity to be with them but still work.”