Why Michigan can’t turn its back on child care

Kate Birnbryer-White

The math seems simple: If the state of Michigan provides $7.5 million in matching funds by Sept. 30, it will receive $20.5 million in federal funding for child care assistance. It might seem like a can’t-lose proposition, one that would benefit Michigan’s working families and employers alike.

But it’s a deal that the state appears poised to pass on, continuing an unfortunate trend of disinvestment in the state’s child care system.

Making the leap from poverty into self-sufficiency often depends largely on having affordable child care. Children must be cared for if parents are to be reliable employees or pursue an education. Funding from the Child Care and Development Fund helps parents who otherwise are unable to take jobs or classes because no affordable child care options are available.

But dwindling investment in the Child Care and Development Fund is placing safe, affordable, accessible, quality child care out of reach of a growing number of low-income families.

In 2003, Michigan’s per-child spending was 11th highest among states at $1,556 and well above the national average of $933. Ten years later, we were among the lowest in the country at $336 per child and significantly below the national average of $679. State spending on child care subsidies has fallen by more than $280 million, and the number of children served by the child care program has fallen by more than half.

That’s bad news not only for parents who scrimp to pay for child care while they work or go to school, but also for Michigan businesses that are having a difficult time finding qualified employees in today’s more robust economy. A well-managed and well-funded child care system allows companies to draw from a larger potential workforce. Workers with reliable child care tend to be more productive and experience less absenteeism.

The National Women’s Law Center notes that no other state has left such a large sum of matching dollars on the table as Michigan legislators appear willing to do. The $20.5 million would go a long way toward helping families most in need of financial assistance.

Whether we’re concerned about the business impact or the needs of low-income families, funding child care assistance is a strong case, especially when federal dollars are available. With all the potential benefits the money will bring, Michigan can’t afford to turn its back on $20.5 million.

It’s time to reverse the trend of disinvestment in Michigan’s children and recognize the positive impact a greater investment will have on families struggling to provide for their children, as well as employers striving to hire qualified, motivated workers.

Kate Birnbryer-White is executive director of Michigan Community Action.