Michigan Caregivers and Student Parents (MCaSP) sat down with elected officials and child care providers on Friday evening to discuss the state of child care in Washtenaw County. The panel discussed how the pandemic affected and revealed disparities in the availability of child care and the need for increased federal and state funding.
MCaSP, a University of Michigan student organization sponsored by the Center for the Education of Women+, aims to bring student parents together and support their education through advocating for equitable resources. LSA senior Jessica Pelton, MCaSP president and parent, helped organize the panel and said the momentum to support child care funding from state and county-wide representatives is present and integral for University faculty and student parents.
“(We need to know) what other help we can get so we can also tie in changes at the University level and make a difference,” Pelton said. “Because we’ve heard of various funding sources, like the Tri-Share model … if the University of Michigan utilized that, that might make a difference.”
Since the start of the school year, student parents at the University have also experienced difficulties in managing in-person classes alongside parenting. The removal of before- and after-school programming in Ann Arbor has led parents to scramble for other options, including enrichment programs that are not run by licensed childcare providers and are therefore not subsidized through the University.
In May, AAPS superintendent Jeanice Swift announced that the School Age Child Care Program would not be offered during the 2021-2022 school year due to COVID-related concerns and staffing shortages. The decision generated backlash from AAPS parents, leading Liz Lin, local child care advocate and Ann Arbor Public Schools parent, and AAPS parent Andrea Huang to co-author a petition to resume the program. The petition currently has more than 1,100 district-parent signatures.
Lin and LSA senior Catherine Hadley, MCaSP vice president and student parent, co-hosted and also helped organize the panel event. Lin said while the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized how critical child care infrastructure is for working parents, the need for child care in Washtenaw County has been an ongoing issue.
“Child care centers are so strapped for cash and strapped for staff, and families feel more stressed than ever because costs are so high,” Lin said. “So we felt like it was really important to get providers and families and elected in the same room and start this conversation about how we can all work together to solve this issue that is currently in full-blown crisis mode.”
Hadley said the pandemic caused millions of women to leave the workforce. She said funding viable child care options is a key economic tool for encouraging and supporting their return.
“In my opinion, child care is a public good that we’re treating as a private good, and because of that everyone is suffering,” Hadley said. “Providers can’t make ends meet, the workers are not being paid a living wage, and then we can’t get child care.”
Panelist and City Councilmember Linh Song, D-Ward 2, said the cancellation of child care programs in the spring exposed how necessary child care is to the Ann Arbor workforce. Affected residents and essential workers did not have the means to hire nannies or other support, Song said.
“I mean, there are certain realities in our city here,” Song said. “We’re the eighth most (socioeconomically) segregated community in the country. We’re in a state that refuses to invest in public education. We’re in a district where a quarter of our children live at or below the poverty line. And the pandemic has especially wreaked havoc on our BIPOC families.”
In terms of pandemic recovery, Song said the city aims to foster conversations with residents. Song also said they have suggested contributing some funds to agencies that address homelessness and organizations involved with schools to provide child care and other support.
“We also should look at how other districts in our county are functioning during the pandemic, and we can learn from them and also support them,” Song said. “Ann Arbor is not an island upon itself. Sometimes we are, but it’s pretty clear that we rely on folks, especially women, who’ve committed to providing child care (and) have taken the burden on themselves for generations now.”
Laura Stidham, Community Day Care executive director, said a total of 30 daycare centers and home care centers closed in Washtenaw County during the pandemic. She said starting and running a daycare business generates significant costs, from installing fire-rated doors to creating a parking lot.
“It is hugely expensive, so it’s not going to be a small business loan,” Stidham said. “It’s going to be between $100,000 and a million at least. The center that we built at Towsley Children’s House costs $5 million and that serves 150 children.”
County Commissioner Andy LaBarre also said child care providers are inadequately compensated for valuable work. He said workers often work long hours, ranging from 10-12 hours a day for $9-$12 an hour. Additionally, when workers sign contracts, they may be excluded from the living wage ordinance put into place 20 years ago.
“It’s a poverty wage for a vital, in some cases, life or death job. It’s terrible,” LaBarre said.
On Sept. 22, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill for $1.4 billion to go toward making child care more affordable and accessible. The bill was put into place on Oct. 1 and is expected to provide care for 105,000 more children at low or no cost.
Jennie McAlpine, senior director of Work-Life Programs at the University, said the grant could be used for long-term pay raises for child care providers.
“I think it’s going to need to be systemic. It needs to be a millage,” McAlpine said. “It needs to be a regular tax just like we pay for our schools and until people include education from birth, that’s not going to happen.”
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, said since he began working in the Michigan House of Representatives in 2017, he has seen the continued deprioritization of education. He said the passing of the bill has shown that education has begun to be prioritized across the aisle and is an important piece in a legislation package focused on child care.
“This package, it’s really focused around helping child care provider organizations,” Rabhi said. “To apply for their licenses, to streamline that process and really create networks by which they can collaborate and communicate and share resources to strengthen that quite a bit. So that was a really positive step.”
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said while child care is a tremendous struggle for most families, it is especially hard to navigate for families with fewer resources and less flexibility in their working lives. He said he believes it is important to acknowledge the devaluation of emotional and physical work that parents, especially women, do in the country.
“If you look at nursing versus doctors, … at some of the home health workers who have been fighting on the front lines in these last couple years — we devalue these jobs, we pay these people wages that are criminally low,” Irwin said. “And then we wonder why the system doesn’t work.”
Daily Staff Reporters Vanessa Kiefer and Emily Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.