Michigan offers little help for child care. That may change in 2020

child care

Child care costs, an economic drag on families and businesses, are the focus of a consortium of Michigan leaders searching for a solution. (Bridge file photo)

Michigan helps families with child care costs less than almost any state.

Leaders from across Michigan have been meeting for six months in search of solutions to the complex policy issue, increasingly acknowledged to be an educational and economic drag on the state.

The group, hosted by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and made up of business, political and education leaders, hasn’t coalesced around a single fix, but several members told Bridge Magazine they anticipate some policy reforms in 2020.

Those efforts, according to members of the group, could range from boosting the income caps to allow more families to qualify for child care subsidies, to increasing the payments to providers, to public-private partnerships to assist workers find affordable, high-quality child care.

“At a time of divided government, this is an example of something that can be accomplished, even in an election year,” said group member Brian Calley, former lieutenant governor under Rick Snyder and current president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

The staggering cost of child care is one of the biggest economic burdens facing Michigan families. The cost can delay home ownership, force children into cheaper, lower-quality child care, and keep some parents out of the workforce as the expenses can neutralize job earnings, according to a 2016 report for the Michigan Department of Education on child care access and affordability.

Child care for an infant or toddler can cost upward of $300 a week at a high-quality center. Four years of child care can cost Michigan families as much as tuition at the University of Michigan.


Those costs also hobble businesses looking to attract or retain workers for low- or moderate-pay jobs.

“We’ve known for a long time that child care access and affordability are a barrier to entrance to the workforce,” said Alexa Kramer, director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids chamber. Addressing those issues “is a great attraction and retention tool.”

Michigan lags most states in helping families afford child care.

Families must have a household income below 130 percent of the federal poverty line to qualify for child care assistance, which equates to $27,729 a year. A couple both earning minimum wage at full-time jobs would earn too much to qualify; one bread-earner would need to make under $13.33 an hour to qualify.

Only five states have lower income eligibility limits for child care assistance. Indiana at 124 percent of the federal poverty line and Ohio at 127 percent are two of them. Four states (Vermont, Alaska, Maine and Maryland) help pay child care costs of families earning more than double the Michigan aid cutoff.

And those who do qualify for subsidies often have trouble finding child care openings, because the state doesn’t reimburse providers at a rate that makes it worthwhile for their bottom lines, said Dawn Bell, director of the Early Childhood Investment Corp., a Michigan-based nonprofit that advocates on early childhood issues.

The average U.S. child care worker earned $23,760 in 2017. Ads for child care workers in the Lansing area offer salaries as low as $9.65 an hour, similar or less than what’s earned at fast-food restaurants.

“We know individuals who are working to get onto waiting lists before they are even pregnant,” Bell said. “We know parents who are falling through the cracks because they earn just too much to get into a program, or the supply is so low, they feel like they won the lottery when they get a spot.

“What we need in 2020 is a big conversation and bold action on child care,” Bell said. “But this is not an issue we can solve by waving a magic wand. The solutions are complex.”

Indeed, the five consortium members who spoke to Bridge offered a variety of policy overhauls.

Talent 2025, a West Michigan-based business coalition focused on finding and developing talent, has been advocating for more investment in child care for several years, and is a member of the child care consortium led by the Grand Rapids Chamber. President Kevin Stotts said the group wants the state to increase funding so that more families qualify for child care subsidies.

Bell warned that increasing the income eligibility cap without also boosting provider pay will only increase waiting lists for care. Increase provider pay would mean additional tax dollars.

But public money alone isn’t going to solve the issue, said Rep. Greg VanWoerkom, R-Norton Shores, who is a member of the child care consortium.

“A lot of this is a funding issue, but we have to find additional dollars[(beyond state funding],” Van Woerkom said. “From our perspective, we see this as a workforce development issue. I know a lot of employers who want to help their employees, who see this as a barrier to entry, who’d be willing to help [with funding]. It’s a matter of finding a mechanism to do that.”

Former Lt. Gov. Calley and Kramer of the Grand Rapids Chamber said the consortium hopes to work with Republican legislative leaders and Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to create a pilot child care program funded by dollars from the state, businesses and families.

Group members “have rallied behind the idea of tri-share program to address accessibility and affordability,” Kramer said.

With a push from business leaders and a rise in new, young legislators – many of whom have backgrounds in education – the “stars have aligned” for meaningful child care reform, Kramer said.

“This is a topic that no matter where you are on the political spectrum, you know it’s an issue worth solving,” Kramer said. “It’s very bipartisan.”

 “I’m optimistic,” Talent 2025’s Stotts said. “Last year, we didn’t make progress because of all the competing issues. But it seems as though more and more Republicans, and those in leadership in both parties, see the challenges of child care, both the cost of child care and lack of availability in urban areas and rural areas.”

Rep. VanWoerkom agreed. “I think this is going to be an issue we’re going to talk a lot about this year,” he said.

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Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:13am

A short summary. They're complaining because they can't get enough employees because of this childcare issue? They are helpless to do anything about it. Some how we can smell them coming to the tax payers to pay to fix this problem and Witmer is happy to help. What about those roads again?

jan d
Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:39am

Why don't we help working families? Give them a hand up for trying to make a living and keep a home.

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 10:16am

Business is always complaining there isn’t enough transportation, childcare, training, fill in the blank. Yet they are the ones that need the resource called workers. Take some of the tax break monies they have received and provide or pay for a transportation system, a child care system, a training system to get workers to their business. Don’t force all the taxpayers to pay for trains, busses, or whatever that will travel most of the day with only a few riders and only be used when workers are going to or from work. Government should not be the resource that keeps business running.

Barry Visel
Tue, 01/28/2020 - 10:25am

Companies are looking for workers to work for wages that don’t support child care costs. Sounds like a wage issue that businesses can solve without government intervention. Ditto for worker training costs.

Brad C.
Tue, 01/28/2020 - 2:32pm

Bridge, sure would like you to research when it became the public's job for an across the board need to finance a family's choice to raise children without the ability to afford them, or prioritize their spending?
I was raised in a one income family --- parents did not have college degrees. We raised our children in a one income family, giving up many items for 15 years -- again, neither of us had a college education nor a skilled trade.
Just like to be updated when this concept changed.

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 9:13pm

Yet you don't say what type of work or what your income level was for those 15 years. The Big 3? You must've had good health insurance and wages wherever it was. I am also curious as to the things you gave up - city you lived in ? Type of housing ( like did you live in a trailer park vs purchasing a home to save or live in a lower income city) or just not taking vacations to Florida? In 2020 you could not support a family on one income or afford child care if you are a teacher because Snyders budget decimated public ed budgets and teachers salaries- they are still not even remotely where they should be Should a teacher who helps raise everyone else's children not have a child because they are 'unprepared' to cover costs? In addition we are talking about young people who have children and may not be making much in those early years. I also wonder what decades those 15 years fell in - I am also curious to your stance on abortion - I have found in many instances the same people who want abortion outlawed are also the same people who don't want any of their money going toward programs that help young mother's or children . I'm not saying that is you - that is what I hear often from people with similar
views about child care aid . I'm addition one can never be prepared completely for the cost of children - what about parents who though they were prepared until their spouse dies, or walks out on them leaving then destitute (especially if the mom was stay at home and had no source of income), or one is struck by major illness , or even a accident that causes a disability? I work with children and families everyday - I hear their stories and struggles. 1200$ a month for child care is unaffordable for many. I am happy for you and your family that you avoided all of those things but hope you will recognize that for many this isn't an issue of not being prepared but of life circumstance and that you would consider softening your view . As an educator I see often the effects on kids of not having access to quality child care and preschool - for many they never catch up to their peers who had those things - that simply isn't fair to them but more importantly effects our society as they become adults. One last thing -not sure that not having a college degree means much - taco Bell managers make more than a teacher with a master's degree