Bridging the child-care gap is a high-stakes concern for families and employers

The ongoing child-care crisis in the Great Lakes Bay Region is a problem for more than just working families.

Bay County is home to about 5,456 kids age 5 and under, says Rich VanTol, who coordinates early childhood education programs through the Bay-Arenac ISD.

Experts think families will need child-care for about 4,528 of those kids. But there are only 87 licensed providers with three star ratings or higher with room for 3,221 kids. That leaves a gap of 1,307 children without a high-quality, reliable child-care provider.

It's easy to see that creates a problem for two-income families with young children. What may be less obvious is the crisis the child-care gap creates for the community.

One of the first steps toward bridging the child-care gap is raising awareness about what it means for the community.

One factor that can drive up child-care costs is the start-up expenses required to get employees ready to work.VanTol, the Great Start Coordinator for the Bay-Arenac ISD, and Gretchen Wagner, the Early Childhood Education Director for the Bay-Arenac ISD, are spreading the word about the high cost of not having enough quality child-care in the region. 

When families don't have child care, people make tough decisions. Some stay out of the workforce. Some are forced to put children in less-than-ideal situations.

While finding any type of care may seem like it solves the problem, it really just kicks it down the road. Research indicates that quality child care is critical to success in school and the workforce.

Read more here about research by Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman showing that the earlier society invests in children, the great the pay off.

VanTol says the situation in Bay County is at a crisis point. 

The answer isn't as simple as building more child-care facilities. VanTol estimates it costs about $100,000 to start up a child care center.

Even if entrepreneurs find the money to open a center, they face hurdles in hiring staff.

Wagner says state licensing requires background checks and training for all employees. The background checks cost $65 per employee. Workers also need to complete training before they can work and employers typically pay employees for time spent in training. 

Between the training and waiting for background check results, child-care centers face a notable lag time and significant expenses between hiring and the first day of work.

To complicate the issue, the industry has a high turnover rate due to minimal pay and benefits, meaning employers are constantly in a hiring and training cycle.

Wagner and VanTol are careful to say they don't advocate reducing the training requirements or changing the background check process. Those are important steps to protect children.

"We want young children, if they're going to be in care, we want it to be high quality," VanTol says.

Raising pay and benefits could help alleviate the problem, but it also would put the price of child-care out of reach for many families. Right now, the average cost of child care in Bay County is $10,000 per year, per child. That's already out of reach of families in the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population. 

"The revenue just isn't there," he says. "Families can only pay so much."

Wagner adds that the study did not consider after-school, before-school, or summer care. The child-care gap grows when you add in those types of care. It also doesn't consider the availability of care for children with special needs.

VanTol and Wagner don't deliver all bad news, though.

"We're hoping to adopt strategies to mitigate the problem," VanTol says.

Some programs offer temporary relief. For example, the Michigan Women’s Commission (MWC) awarded a $300,000 grant to the Saginaw Intermediate School District to offer the MI Tri-Share Child Care Program to employers and employees in the Great Lakes Bay Region. The MWC  is located within the State of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Through the program, child-care expenses are shared by an employer, the employee, and the State of Michigan with each contributing up to one-third of the costs. For example, under this program, an employee paying $9,000 in annual child care services will now pay $3,000, the employer will cover $3,000, and the State of Michigan will cover $3,000. Participating employers within Bay, Arenac, Midland, Isabella, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, and Saginaw counties will also receive a tax credit at the end of the year to mitigate the employer’s contributions.

Read more about the Tri-Share program in this April 2021 Route Bay City article.

That's not the only program in place to bridge the gap.

New Hope Bay Senior Living Facility created an intergenerational care campus in 2021. The Montessori Children's House of Bay City helps both the seniors living at New Hope Bay and pre-school children who need care. Both the senior living facility and children's center are located at 668 N. Pine Road in Bay City.

"We're starting to see a portfolio of strategies," VanTol says. "We're going to have to have more conversations as a community."

Magen Samyn, Bay Area Chamber of Commerce President, agrees that the problem goes far beyond the families feeling the immediate effect. She says the top concern voiced by her 250 members is the labor shortage. 

"If we can't deal with this issue of child care, which affects the overall economy, we have people who can't work in businesses," VanTol adds.

State Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet, D-Bay City, is aware of the problem, says Kevin Hayes, Rivet's District & Constituent Services Representative. He says she is focused on attracting talent to the region. Child-care options are part of what people seek when considering where to live.

As they seek solutions to the child-care issue, VanTol and Wagner welcome help from the community.

First, VanTol asks employers to ask their workers what issues they're facing. Employers may not realize what unique challenges families face. 

Second, VanTol and Wagner are open to visiting community groups to talk about the problem and start brainstorming potential solutions.

VanTol is available at vantolr@baisd.net.