B.C. comes together to help parents with childcare and get youngsters in preschool sooner

There’s no question, for anyone who has ever needed to work while caring for a child, that there’s a serious childcare problem in this country. For many families, childcare is their biggest or second-biggest expense, right up there with housing. In 28 states, it costs more than college. While Michigan isn’t one of them, a study by Child Care Aware found that a year of center-based care for one child cost $10,281 – for two children, it was $17,561. 

Single parents and parents in poverty pay a larger share of their income for child care – while married parents pay 12 percent of their income for center-based care for an infant and 21 percent for two children, single parents pay a whopping 49 percent of their income for child care for an infant and 83 percent of their income for child care for two children. 

This means parents are forced to make the decision about who will care for their child while they work based on cost, not on quality, says Maria Ortiz Borden, co-executive director of BC Pulse.

“When you make that decision to put cost above quality, quality goes down,” she says. “We definitely see this as a problem.”

BC Pulse acts as a backbone organization to effect systems change for children and families in Battle Creek. Early childhood education has been a major focus of their work, including assessing where the gaps are for families seeking child care. A 2014 Pulse survey found that 44 percent of families in Battle Creek had trouble finding quality childcare in their neighborhoods, a problem which affected African American families and lower-income families in even greater numbers. 

A toddler explores a book at Take-A-Break Childcare. Photo by Susan AndressAmong other efforts, BC Pulse assisted six child care centers throughout the city in forming a consortium to handle back-office functions such as human resources and billing, and negotiate together for services such as annual audits. Many centers write off a significant chunk of income when families struggle to pay, so consolidating back-office functions can help significantly lower their costs and allow them to stay open. 

Another problem facing both centers and families was the fact that many families do not know about state-funded resources that can make early childhood care more affordable, such as free preschool and child care through programs like Great Start Readiness Program, Head Start, and Department of Health and Human Services child care assistance. Seats in these quality programs were going unfilled. 

BC Pulse helped providers in the Battle Creek area create a shared marketing strategy for their programs, as well as a single application portal for them. Those seats are now 98 percent full at the beginning of the school year. Before the shared portal was created they often would not reach that level of seats filled until the school year was two-thirds over. “The sooner we get those kiddos in those seats, the better it will be and the more equipped we will be to have better outcomes,” Borden says. 

Affordability of child care has wide-ranging effects. When parents can’t find affordable childcare, it can be difficult for them to find work that pays enough to improve their financial situation when so much of their pay goes to childcare costs. If they are forced to choose care based on cost rather than quality, children enter kindergarten behind where they need to be. “We’re all in favor of increasing quality – when you learn about brain science you understand learning begins at birth and we need (children) to be challenged before they reach kindergarten,” Borden says. “We’ve done all these investments in preschool, but we continue to catch up in making it affordable for families.” 

From a workforce development standpoint, the biggest barriers employers face to finding and retaining employees are transportation and childcare. To help overcome those barriers, BC Pulse helped establish a program in partnership with the Michigan Works Employer Resource Networks and United Way of Southwestern Michigan. Michigan Works Employer Resource Networks provide success coaches to employees within these networks, who help workers address any snags they may hit while establishing themselves in a job, including helping them file for DHHS childcare assistance. 

There is a lag of 45 days, however, between the time qualified applicants apply for help and the time those benefits kick in. United Way, at the request of BC Pulse, provided funding for a childcare scholarship that covers childcare costs during that time. That application lives on the shared childcare portal right along with the GSRP and Head Start applications, easing the way for families to access all the help they are eligible for.

Borden says the community fully buys into the need for more affordable, quality child care. “This isn’t just a problem for low-income wage earners -- this is a problem throughout the community,” she says. “The business case for free preschool and affordable childcare is proven. It helps parents currently in the workforce but also the future citizens of this community, so it’s definitely an investment we want to make.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Amy Kuras is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
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