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Opinion | State must seize opportunity to fix our struggling child care system

The struggle to find consistent, quality child care has burdened working families since long before COVID-19 became part of our lives. But with staffing shortages and pandemic-related health scares, the problem has intensified, leaving parents and care providers alike with few good options and lots of frustration.

Jeffrey Miles
Jeffrey Miles is the senior director for Early Childhood at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. (Courtesy photo)

With billions of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars now on the table and the potential for an even greater investment in the Build Back Better plan currently being considered in Congress, the time is now to make dramatic improvements to our child care system.

I’m the father of 1- and 3-year-old children. My wife and I have firsthand experience with the stress of juggling work and caring for our young children at home over the past year and a half. Earlier this year, we had the privilege to decide to put our boys back into child care. But it wasn’t long before our child care provider informed families of the tough choice she was facing: roll back her operating hours or reduce the number of children in her care. There simply were not enough teachers. Ultimately, parents accepted reduced hours so everyone could have some care for the work week — an ideal option for no one.

The pandemic has forced many individuals to leave the childcare profession and providers to close. Meanwhile, remote schooling has meant more families are searching for care options. The result is a perfect storm where families are scrambling to find care options that allow them to return to work and that fit their budgets.

This month, United Way’s ALICE Project released a report showing that low-income families have shouldered more of this burden. In The Pandemic Divide: An ALICE Analysis of National COVID Surveys, we see that 17 percent of lower income families were forced to quit their jobs to care for their children in the past year due to the pandemic.

But we can fix this. The early childhood sector is poised for the largest expansion of subsidized care in decades through federal stimulus dollars from ARPA and President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better plan. This investment would give families support to get back to work, and provide financial stability for care providers and their staff.

This isn’t just an economic investment. We must also recognize quality child care as an essential investment in our children’s development from birth to age five. Early childhood educators support a child’s healthy development — physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally. They also know CPR and first aid, follow health and safety guidelines (which are even more stringent now) and understand a young child’s nutritional needs.

Early childhood educators — disproportionately women and particularly women of color — are experts in child development. They are educated and experienced in their field, and yet they make on average $11.13 an hour — one third of what a kindergarten teacher makes, according to the Center of the Study of Child Care Employment. It is little wonder why it is so hard to recruit and retain early childhood educators and staff.

Child care creates long-term public good that is too often subsidized by those who can least afford it: families and care providers. This influx of public funding into child care is welcome and necessary. But, are we ready to acknowledge that child care is an essential service and push for long-term public funding? We must seize this moment to strengthen our economy, stabilize working households and set our children up for academic success by fixing our child care system — making it both affordable for families and a sustainable business model and career for workers.

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