Most of Michigan’s counties having childcare deserts, areas that have three or more families competing for one available childcare slot.
Working opposite shifts, driving long distances, or carefully piecing together friends and family members for drop-offs or pickups — for families with young children, childcare can be a delicate tightrope walk when it comes to finding affordable and quality care.
When the tightrope breaks, the impact goes beyond the parents and those who provide these services to impacting the business community, economic development organizations, and municipalities.
Jordan Blough-Orr, East-Central Michigan Child Coalition coordinator, and Ken Roubal, founder and data architect, Data Driven Decisions
“It’s a complex problem,” says Jordan Blough-Orr, director of human-centered design at Data Driven Decisions
and coordinator for the East-Central Michigan Child Coalition. The Coalition is studying the childcare landscape in eight counties: Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland, and Saginaw. “It's not just if we have more programs we will solve the problem. The problem is that families need access to culturally-responsive, affordable, quality care that meets their personal preferences and is located where they can access it when they need it.”
The East-Central Michigan Child Care Coalition was founded by the Middle Michigan Development Corporation
and 30 regional organizations. In spring of 2023, the Middle Michigan Development Corporation was one of 16 organizations around the state to receive $150,000 from $2.4 million in Regional Child Care Planning Grants from the Early Childhood Investment Corporation
’s (ECIC) Child Care Innovation Fund. The goal of funding is for the 16 organizations to study child care and education in its region with an eye toward expanding child care organizations, serve more parents and lower costs to families.
For the past several months, the East-Central Michigan Child Care Coalition has been meeting with and surveying parents, providers, childcare staff, and business owners and representatives. The goal, according to Blough-Orr, was to get a well-rounded picture of child care within its eight counties.
The results have shown many trends that have been seen on a state and national level such as the difficulty of finding affordable and quality childcare for families and the need for a livable wage for those providing childcare.
Director Samatha Mitchell prepares for Children’s Discovery Academy grand re-opening. The center offers weekly indoor activities for families. A $5/group suggested donation raises funds for the center’s construction.
The Growing Childcare Desert
“One of the big things that we know needs to shift around childcare for there to be changes is mindsets and values, and recognition that childcare is in fact a business,” Blough-Orr says. “These are small business owners. These are micro-business owners. They should be making a profit and be able to pay their staff a livable wage to both support themselves and their children.”
The reality is that many families living within the Coalition’s survey area are paying more than 7% of their income, which is the benchmark for affordable childcare that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
has established. On the flipside, the survey found that those who are working in child care and looking for another job would like to stay in the field but, due to the wages, are unable to.
According to the Michigan State University Child Care Mapping Project
, this has resulted in most of Michigan’s counties having childcare deserts, areas that have three or more families competing for one available childcare slot. Three counties within the East-Central Michigan Child Care Coalition — Arenac, Bay and Gladwin — are childcare deserts.
The remaining five counties — Clare, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland and Saginaw — have pocket areas that show two or less students competing for spots while the remaining areas of those counties are childcare deserts. For example, in Saginaw County’s 48722 area code, three licensed daycare providers have two students competing for available spots. However, in the county’s west end, two zip codes, 48637 and 48614, have no available licensed care providers. More than half of Saginaw County is considered a childcare desert.
Those numbers could be worse, according to Ken Roubal, founder and data architect for Data Driven Decisions. The East-Central Michigan Child Care Coalition survey results have indicated that many providers have reported a waitlist yet are not at capacity.
“The maps assume licensed capacity is the denominator of the calculation,” Roubal said. “So, it is using that as a proxy for what might actually be real current capacity, which according to business owners and childcare provider directors, due to lack of staff, they don't have enough staff and talent available to even operate at capacity. The childcare deserts may be even worse than they appear.”
The Children’s Discovery Academy (CDA) is hoping to kick-off construction of their nonprofit center’s relocated facilities at the end of January 2024 in Gratiot County.
The market failure of child care
Katie Sloan, a Central Michigan University faculty member and childcare researcher, says since before COVID, childcare has been in a trilemma as it dealt with three major issues: access, affordability, and quality. She prefers to frame the last issue as a lack of support. People talk about childcare workers as if they need more education or the childcare system needs more qualified people. But Michigan’s early childhood care workforce is highly educated and skilled, according to Michigan Early Care and Education Workforce Study
That study showed that 55% of family childcare providers surveyed had at least an associate degree or higher — 90% of administrators, 89% of teachers, and 58% of assistant teachers had an associate degree or higher. The Michigan Education and Workforce Study also found little difference in education levels for those who worked in community-based programs and those who worked in publicly funded programs. Digging deeper into teacher education levels, the study also found that 79% of those working with preschool-aged children had a bachelor’s degree and 53% working with infants and toddlers had a bachelor’s degree.
Katie Sloan, Central Michigan University faculty member and childcare researcher
“Parents have this perception, a lot of times, that the people caring for their kids are maybe better compensated because they're paying (childcare) bills that are many times higher than their mortgages,” Sloan said. “The problem is that the actual system, the framework that we're using as a society, is not appropriate for the type of work.”
The early childcare system relies on a neoliberal capital market model, Sloan says, where the government plays a small role in economic and public needs but rather relies on supply and demand. The result has been a market failure because people cannot make enough to pay those doing the work. According to the Michigan Education and Workforce Study, the average salary for an early childhood teacher was $15 an hour in 2018. It has not increased much. The Coalition found the average salary in its eight counties was still $15 for childcare educators.
COVID had a big impact on the childcare system as well. A number of parents, especially women, left the workforce during COVID to stay home and care for their children.
“People want to work,” Blough-Orr says. “Many of the people who had to leave their career path are now also in a position where our economy and our communities are suffering because they are not able to offer their expertise.”
Former childcare center director and teacher, Carmen Sommerville, started her in-home family child care business in Alma in 2012.
Communities need to resolve the childcare crisis
According to Sloan, while the childcare system seems complicated, it really is not, and the solution is fairly simple.
“A couple of 100 years ago, people came together and said, 'Hey, what if we develop a levy so all of our kids can go to school?’” Sloan says. “That probably seemed a little radical at the time and probably seemed complicated.
“I think it's more an ideological issue because we have a lot of assumptions around whose responsibility is it to care for the kids, that the family needs to figure that out. How much value do we place on this type of work? It's low value. But really, I don't think it's that complicated.”
Pointing to the fact that K-12 schools are publicly funded, and other countries fund early childcare, Sloan believes that funding does exist to publicly support and sustain needed childcare. It is a choice on whether to do so.
Since there is no push for a federal mandate or funding to help support free childcare for all children, smaller groups such as the East-Central Michigan Child Care Coalition are coming together to brainstorm solutions.
“We are collectively so powerful, so resourceful, and so imaginative. We can probably figure this out,” Sloan says. “It's unfortunate that we give so much money in taxes, and that we don't get to see the programs that we need. So, in the meantime, how can we fix this, all of us as a community, so that we're not suffering?”
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma has 30-plus years of writing experience having served as a reporter and editor for several West Michigan publications, covering a variety of topics from local news to arts and entertainment.
Photos by Courtney Jerome.
Roubal, Blough-Orr, and Sloan photos courtesy subjects.
Early Education Matters is a series of stories about the implementation of Pre-K for All throughout the State of Michigan. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.