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Our child care system is failing our country and crushing American families. Accordingly, as we approach this week’s second Democratic presidential candidate debates in Detroit, we have high expectations for all 20 candidates to address how they will tackle access to quality child care for all families based on the economic reality facing our state.

Mothers and fathers in Michigan are struggling. With 14% of our population below the poverty line ($24,860 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census) and almost one in five children under 18 living in families with incomes below the poverty line, it is important for Michiganians to hear how each presidential candidate plans to uplift all families through their economic agendas.

Michigan's income for a family of four is $81,588, while the average cost of a child care center tuition for two children in the state is $17,561 per year — more than 20% of an average family’s income. Yet according to 2016 guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, families should only be spending 7% of their income on child care.

Some parents plan their work schedules around child care. Others decline promotions or job opportunities because they cannot afford to pay more for care. There are parents who have to stop working because they cannot afford to pay for child care, which also means they stop contributing to their retirement accounts. 

In low-income and marginalized communities of color, this crisis takes on an additional economic layer because early childhood educators — mostly women of color — often have to work two or more jobs to provide for their families, and earn less than a living wage with no benefits or retirement savings. Data shows that families of early childhood educators are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers’ families.

The stories I constantly hear from Michigan parents on the hardships they face for not having access to child care are appalling. Teresa Lanier, a mother from Grosse Pointe, couldn’t afford to finish college and pay for child care with her job; she was even denied by the Michigan assistance program due to their income requirements. Lanier had to depend on her elderly parents to care for her child as she finished her degree and work.  

Lanier’s child care dilemma is ours as a collective society if we want our children to remain healthy, and for parents to have the freedom to work without the nagging worry about whether their children are well cared for and safe. That kind of freedom helps parents increase wages and work productivity, so they can make ends meet.

It is time for access to quality and affordable child care to be at the center of our national economic agenda. Our community will only thrive when every parent who seeks child care can have access to affordable, high-quality and culturally competent care for their children, providing them with what they need to get a strong start. This must include ensuring that child care providers earn a living wage with benefits.

Existing federal programs are woefully underfunded, with investments provided through a fractured system that is difficult for parents to navigate, if they are eligible at all.  

America’s child care system is not going to fix itself. We urge Democratic candidates to provide real solutions at the Detroit debates. It is time for us to come together with a new vision for child care that involves guaranteed access to good child care for every child.

As a Michigan mother and community advocate, I will be watching the Democratic presidential candidates. We need each of them to step up and provide their detailed vision for universal access to quality child care to uplift all working families. 

Danielle Atkinson is director of Mothering Justice, a statewide organization working to improve the lives of Michigan families by equipping the next generation of mother activists. Atkinson lives in Royal Oak.

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