Local coalition releases action plan to improve child care in Washtenaw, Livingston counties

The Livingston and Washtenaw Counties Child Care Coalition, a collaboration of local child care providers, families, policymakers, and economic development professionals, recently released an action plan to improve child care in the region. The plan identifies six areas of focus and specific actions that can be taken to address the challenges.

"Before we brought everyone together, we had an idea of the impact of the cost of child care, but we needed to put all the data together to crystallize things," says Phil Santer, senior vice president and chief of staff for Ann Arbor SPARK, which is working with Public Sector Consultants to support the coalition. "Washtenaw County has the highest child care costs in the state, and these are astounding real numbers. We have families paying $30,000 or more per year for child care, and numerous small businesses coping with the challenges of operating as a mom-and-pop."

The six focus areas identified by the group are: 1) promoting equitable and adequate funding to encourage an increase in licensed child care slots, 2) advocating for local policies to make it easier for providers to open and expand programs, 3) providing resources and supports to enable child care providers to thrive as businesses, 4) supporting the child care workforce through expanded training and increased resources, 5) empowering area employers to be child care champions, and 6) fostering an informed and engaged community that is ready to take action to support the child care field.

"The challenges are overwhelming, so we wanted to focus on things that are actionable so we can improve awareness and education on why these issues are important," Santer says. "I’m excited about things like working to change zoning laws to allow facilities to expand, for example, and continuing to connect through addressing issues identified by the group."

The action plan is meant to highlight how a lack of child care options negatively impacts the local economy. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Michigan loses approximately $3 billion annually because parents are struggling to find care and often end up leaving the workforce or reducing the amount they work. Local employers engaged through the coalition’s work supported this finding, stating that the lack of child care options in the region is negatively impacting their businesses in productivity, absenteeism, and workers leaving the workforce due to lack of adequate child care.

The coalition’s research has shown that families are grappling with limited access to child care options, with many areas within the counties considered child care deserts (defined as having more than three children for each licensed seat). While supply is an issue, cost was also found to be a major barrier for families seeking care, with the region having the highest average cost of care in the state (approximately $14,000 annually).

The report also indicates that due to a historic lack of public investment and market failure, many child care providers are struggling to stay afloat, which could exacerbate the challenges facing families in the coming years.

In the coming months, members of the coalition and other interested partners will be working together to begin moving the action plan forward. This will include local advocacy efforts, the convening of area philanthropic organizations, and bringing employers into the conversation. The group is also considering something like a certification for members of the business community to show that they support efforts to improve child care in the region.

"Increasing on-site care, doing more to get state resources to people, and connecting with the broader funding community to increase accessibility are all key components," Santer says. "In the future, I’d love to see more awareness of child care as an issue, increased investment and understanding of what it takes to operate a facility, and at the end of the day, better access throughout our communities, with more choices and options for families."

Jenny Rose Ryan (she/they) is a writer, editor, and communications consultant who has more than 20 years of experience sharing complicated and compelling stories. She is based in Ypsilanti.

Photo by Doug Coombe.
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