Not housing, parking, or jobs. Rather, it was child care near the top of the list of unmet eastside Lansing needs.
This was the opinion of 67 neighbors who attended a recent charrette, hosted by the Allen Neighborhood Center and facilitated by Jennie Grau of Grau Interpersonal Communication. The charrette was designed to identify community uses that might make sense in the empty spaces remaining in the building that ANC owns on Kalamazoo Street.
A short time later, I listened as Emma Bostwick of LEAP — Lansing Economic Area Partnership — noted at a public meeting that “there is a child care desert in our community. For every child that is enrolled in child care, another is unable to secure placement.”
I wondered if the challenges of reliable child care during COVID might be having lingering effects, but the MI Untapped Potential Report put out by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce notes that the shortage existed well before COVID. Of course, COVID didn’t help: One in four licensed child care centers in Michigan closed during the pandemic and have not re-opened.
As the chamber reports, “A 2020 study by the Michigan League for Public Policy found that there was a significant gap between the demand for childcare and the availability of state-regulated childcare in Michigan. … Across the State, 44% of Michigan residents live in a childcare desert with limited access to licensed childcare providers.”
Locally, we don’t fare much better. LEAP’s Bostwick notes that our three-county region contains about 415 licensed child care providers (some operating under-capacity given labor and other challenges), which altogether provides 18,000 openings for over 300,000 children needing care. (In researching this column, I’m having flashbacks to what was by far the most stressful aspect of my single-parenting experience: securing quality, affordable and reliable child care. I’ll bet I am not alone in this.)
While acknowledging that the greatest concern of insufficient child care is the loss of developmental benefits of high-quality child care for young children, the Chamber Report looks at “the impact that Michigan’s lack of accessible and affordable childcare has had on our state’s working parents, job providers and economy.” It estimates that the direct financial impact of insufficient child care coverage on Michigan’s economy exceeds $2.8 billion each year. This is the annual financial cost of parents deciding to to quit jobs, job training programs, and schools because of child care difficulties.
The chamber report concludes that “childcare is a central determinant in whether a parent can participate in the labor force, a reality that is on full display as the state continues to push for job growth. Michigan ranks 39th in labor force participation relative to other states, and our findings indicate many parents may not be able to continue working without adequate child care options
In response to all of this, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has created Caring for MI Future, allocating $100 million to “help child care entrepreneurs open 1,000 new or expanded child care programs by the end of 2024.”
Regionally, LEAP has co-organized a 60-member Childcare Coalition to develop and implement a plan to address a wide range of child care issues, including assisting providers with business development and licensing/certification assistance; encouraging family-centric zoning that supports a range of options, including home daycare and child care centers in neighborhoods; expanding universal Pre-K, developing “navigation systems” to link parents to providers, increasing child care during non-standard hours (fewer than 5% of providers offer care on weekends, evenings and overnight); and offering child care subsidies for parents. Important, there appears to be a commitment to growing the field by addressing the historically low pay of $12-$13/hour for child care workers and lack of small business funding support for child care centers or home daycare.
LEAP’s Coalition includes a substantial number of child care providers of all sorts, as well as representatives from government, education and business. Intensive data gathering and discussion will inform an action plan ready for implementation near the start of the year. Once implementation begins, Bostwick said that the coalition will shift to raising funds to support an ambitious set of strategies. Given that child care has historically never received continuous or robust funding, the coalition will have its work cut out for it.
My go-to on all things zoning is Andy Fedewa, Lansing’s chief planner, and so I asked him about the coalition’s look at family-centric zoning policies. He replied that the city makes sure that “child care facilities are allowed citywide with reasonable regulations to ensure that children have a safe outdoor environment.”
“We welcome suggestions from the Childcare Coalition,” said Fedewa, whose team carries out its periodic review and that child care may well be a focus of of possible modifications to the zoning code.
I asked Joe Enerson, ANC’s executive director, about whether any of its available space might be a good fit with child care. Though doubtful about suitable space in Allen Place, he pointed out other ways that ANC could assist, e.g., by providing meeting space for professional development trainings and for providers to meet for mutual support, linking parents to eastside providers and growing its already existing afterschool and summer youth programs.
What neighborhoods offer in the way of child care options does matter. As noted in the chamber report, after affordability and quality, proximity to home, work, or school is the third leading factor, with 38% of parents agreeing that it is a key decision criterion.
So, if you think your calling is the care and nurture of your community’s children, this may be a fortuitous moment. With mobilization of people and resources at state, regional and neighborhood levels to address the complicated challenges of child care, we might just begin to turn this intractable issue around. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the child care field offered good jobs, decent business opportunities and enough openings to meet the needs of Michigan’s children?
(Joan Nelson is the retired founding executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center. She contributes this column monthly.)
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