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Early childhood care in the U.S. is in crisis

For many families, the monthly cost of childcare is higher than their mortgage.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A new study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute shows that a household with two children now spends a quarter of its income on childcare.

Early childhood care in America is in crisis. Prices are high for families, pay is low for childcare providers and wait lists are long.

13 is ON YOUR SIDE with a look at the problem and potential solutions.

The cost of early childhood care in Michigan is high...very high. 

"Childcare is the single most expensive cost for a family," explained Anne Marie Valdez, President of First Steps Kent. "That's going to be higher than a mortgage payment...you are talking well over $1,000 a month."

In West Michigan, costs per week range from $130 for in-home care to $200-$250 or more for care in a center per child.

But why, when providers are paid so little—on average between $18,500 and $23,000 per year.

Penny Blackall has worked in childcare for 30 years. 

"If I didn't have a supplemental income with my husband I could never make it," she explained.

And that means the industry loses talent. 

"We have college students who are naturals but they can't afford to live off this and pay their student loans," Blackall said.

Grand Rapids Early Discovery Center Director Starr Morgan explains how low pay leads to less access.

"These are teachers, most of them with Bachelor's degrees, and we are paying them barely minimum wage or maybe a little bit higher, definitely not a livable wage," Morgan said. "People are taking other entry level positions in the fast food industry, or retail, because they are making more, not needing any education. So we can't get teachers which means we can't fill the classrooms. I have over 100 families on our waiting list."

So why not increase pay? 

"In early education, the operating budget, about 80% of it is wages," Morgan said. "You can't increase wages without significantly increasing tuition," which would be a hardship for families.

Rachelle McKissick-Harris is keenly aware of the situation having been on all sides of it as a care provider and center director herself, and now as a mom looking for full-time infant care.

"I understand the crisis that we are in, but as a parent it puts you in a crisis as well, when you as a parent can't secure care to go back to work, and all of those things, they play together," she explained.

"We can't have a workforce without childcare," said Valdez.

So what has helped? The $1.4 billion earmarked for childcare businesses thanks to the American Rescue Plan which helped keep the industry afloat. The COVID stimulus packages also helped families in the form of a childcare tax credits delivered by check to families every month.

"It really made a difference for our family, if we could make that sustainable, a permanent thing for parents (that would really help). It's always been a crisis but the pandemic highlighted it more," explained McKissick-Harris.

Over the last two years, more than 11 million people left the workforce over childcare issues, and hundreds of thousands of women in Michigan did the same. 

"We need to work together in a bipartisan way to make sure that beyond this influx of money, we can think about models that will work," said Valdez.  

Vibrant Futures and the Grand Rapids Chamber are piloting a tri-share model. With it childcare costs are split three ways: One third covered by parents, one third covered by the state and one third covered by the employer.

"I think employers are willing to listen and so are state legislators, and it's the first time ever they are recognizing that we are at this critical juncture and we need to work together," said Valdez.

So much hinges on care.   

"I think early childhood education has been made to look like babysitting, than it is actually preparing them to go into kindergarten. I think if we can change the lens that people view early childhood education there might be more investment in it," said McKissick-Harris.

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