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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Northern Michigan’s Day Care Crisis Impacts “UpNorth” Economy

December 29, 2017

There’s a joke among expectant parents that before you call your mother and family announcing your pregnant, you first call and reserve a spot.  Fast becoming one of the number one needs across Michigan, and actually the nation, is finding adequate daycare.

Ask any young person wait-listed for a place that handles children still in diapers.  The daycare shortage has reached crisis levels and is now affecting the economy, especially in northern Michigan.  For the first time, Daycare shortages have been identified as a critical workforce issue by the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, a non-profit 14-chamber partnership of more than 6,500 members.

The alliance annually establishes its list of legislative priorities and works collectively to advocate for those critical issues to assure businesses in northern Michigan formed to get representation, particularly by state lawmakers and leadership.  This year, Northern Michigan’s Childcare Crisis found itself on the same platform as housing, infrastructure, education, healthcare and talent investment normally identified with the group.

While childcare shortages are not unique to any part of the state, rural areas grapple with a different set of issues because of distance and access to education available to the providers to keep up with ever-changing state requirements to become—or even maintain—state licensing.

In Northwest Michigan’s 10-county region there are 11,753 families with both parents working and therefore in need of some form of care, says Mary Manner of “Great Start to Quality,” a nonprofit that tries to connect families with child care providers.  In a recent survey of all infants/toddlers (0-18 mos.), it was found that only one third of care providers accept children less than 1.5 years of age or in diapers.

Rural communities find themselves dependent using private licensed home care rather than center-based care because larger centers are rarely available.  This is because of low-population communities and greater driving distances to and from work.  “Something we understand in rural northern Michigan, but not necessarily in Lansing,” Manner recently told some 75 business and community leaders gathered in Traverse City to identify the Chamber’s legislative priorities for 2018.

Manner says there has been a net loss of 50 childcare businesses; roughly 25 percent of northern Michigan’s child care providers have shut down.  Some people have retired, while others have burned out.  Studies now show there are only enough licensed care providers for 60 percent of the children who need it, and that is now an economic issue for the region.

“If people don’t have somewhere for their children to stay, where they’re going to be well cared for, those parents can’t work.  And if those parents can’t work, then our workforce suffers, our businesses suffer and they suffer because they don’t have an income to support their families,” Manner said.

As some employers shared last month, it became more of an economic issue recently when current employees had to quit because there was no one to watch younger children—especially infants in diapers—at home.  Potential employees couldn’t take positions for the same reason.  “It’s a problem all over Northern Michigan and it’s really a problem all over the state,” said Mary Manner, Great Start coordinator.  “Studies show that four out of ten infants and toddlers in northwest Michigan go without licensed care.”

Manner and her consultant, Gabe Schneider of Northern Strategies 360, presented their recent survey and data map to the alliance.  It showed only Traverse City with enough population in the five-county Grand Traverse region to even partially address the shortage with a 41.4% infant/toddler care gap between licensed capacity and need.

Initiatives like Great Start, are looking at reasons why childcare providers and families are struggling.  They say providers need to acquire the skills to run a business, and resources are needed to help people pay for quality childcare. Educational opportunities and other resources, unlike in urban areas, are few and far between in rural northern Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula.

Experts say low pay and burdensome regulations are to blame for the rapidly declining number of child care providers, and with new regulations that just took effect, the problem may get worse.

“We pay them less than we pay animal handlers and nail technicians,” Manner says. “So, it’s a big challenge to attract and retain people to the field of child care because the wages just aren’t there.”  The average salary for a child care worker Up North is only about $19,000 a year.  People can make more money working at Meijer or McDonald’s, and Manner says that’s what many of them are doing.  She says the exodus of child care providers is leaving working parents in a desperate situation.

Finding the balance between providing a safe environment and what child care providers can afford becomes a challenge.  Mark Jansen, director of the child care licensing division of LARA (Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affair) shared earlier this year on WIAA Interlochen Public Radio what childcare providers must do to become licensed.  Jansen says new child care providers will have to get a radon test in their homes, an environmental health test and a medical release form.  There’s also a heating system inspection, first aid training, CPR certification and a criminal background check – all of which potential providers pay for themselves.

LARA estimates the cost of starting an in-home day care at anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000.  There are grants and subsidies available to help, but for that one must have to have an Associate’s Degree in child development.  The child care crisis in northern Michigan might be about to get worse.  Jansen says that’s because of changes coming down from the federal government.  “Because the federal law changed in 2014-15, we’re now being forced at the state level to make changes to match up to the federal laws,” Jansen says.

One of the biggest changes is an expansion of criminal background checks.  Now everyone in a child care household – not just the provider – will have to get a background check. 

Manner and Great Start Collaborative offered the Chamber Alliance some ways to address the crisis:

  • Support Provider Reimbursement Rate Increases
  • Increase the Eligibility Entrance Threshold of the Child Development and Care (CDC Program).
  • Decrease Regulatory Burden on Providers
  • Invest in Provider Capacity for Quality Care.

To be eligible for the CDC program, a family’s gross monthly income must exceed the maximum monthly gross income limit by family size associated with the program entry level.  For example, for a family of one, the entry level is $1,307 with a maximum level of $2,913.  For a family of four, the entry level is $2,050 with a maximum level of $5,601.   For more detail see: https://dhhs.michigan.gov/OLMWEB/EX/RF/Public/RFT/270.pdf

Manner says some of these changes and new regulations are likely to force more child care providers out of business.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

December 28, 2017 · Filed under Winter

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