Commentary Family

Some States Are Turning the Tide in Funding Child Care—Others Should Follow

Tomicka Robinson

Parents, teachers, caregivers, and day care owners are reminding their legislators of the old adage: Family comes first.

In the United States, everyone from politicians, parents, and performers give lip service to the idea that children are our future. Yet our nation has not invested enough in that future.

But there are signs that there may be a turnaround in about a dozen states. From Michigan to California and New Hampshire, state policymakers—even in states entirely controlled by Republicans—have passed or are debating budgets that would put more resources into child care and early childhood education. It seems our many legislators are slowly recognizing that children have rights and parents want the very best for our kids. And that best means providing quality child care we can afford, no matter our income.

This year, the California legislature fought to protect $500 million that was allocated last year to expand the state’s child-care package, even though Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to divert the funding elsewhere. The funding will add 3,000 preschool slots; increase the number of families eligible for subsidized child care; and expand the state’s earned income tax credit, which could decrease the child care costs of up to 1.5 million families. Legislators also added $25 million to this year’s budget so more families could access the CalWorks program for needy families and keep the assistance year-round.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) and the state legislature added $15 million to budget to cover the cost of implementing new child-care rules that foster safer environments for children and protect the number of child-care slots.

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In my home state of Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, proposed investing an additional $30 million so more families are eligible for state child-care subsidies and the child-care providers receive higher pay for the quality care that they deliver. The Republican-controlled legislature approved the request.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Michigan parents, care providers, advocates, and community leaders were in a pitched battle with the legislature just to add $7 million to the state’s child-care subsidy program so that the state could receive $20 million in federal money for child care. We lost that fight.

So as Michiganders, we did what we always do. We dug in and worked even harder to make sure our legislators heard us when we said child care is one of the biggest obstacles for working families like mine. In the last year, we have held rallies, protests, and community meetings.

The funding increase is a big win for us, but expanding child care subsidies doesn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling families’ need. Still, it is a step in the right direction, especially given how the state legislature has gutted child care expenditures over the last nine years. The expenditure for child care nose-dived from $516 million in 2006 to $143 million in 2015. A recent report from the Center for Law and Social Policy shows that during that time, the number of children the state provided subsidies for dropped from more than 87,800 in 2006 to 32,100 in 2015.

Child care is one of the single biggest obstacles for working families like mine. I am an advocate with Mothering Justice, a social justice organization dedicated to empowering mothers. My husband and I earn enough that we are not eligible for child care subsidies. But we are far from the high-income bracket that would allow us to choose the top day care centers. We juggle child care schedules by working opposite shifts at full-time jobs.

Even still, we have gaps when we need help to care for our daughter. The starting rate for our day care is $65 a day for a toddler who is not yet potty-trained. Our household’s monthly child-care costs are almost as much as our mortgage.

We like the day care where she’s currently enrolled, but there is just not enough quality care in my area. I live in Warren, a city of about 136,000 people, near Detroit, but only eight centers came up for my area on a popular site that rates day cares by certifications and parental reviews. It remains a struggle for us to find the best quality child care we can afford.

My experience is commonplace. A study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard University found that less than half of parents surveyed say they have a few realistic care options for their children. One in five of those surveyed say they only have one realistic care option. Rhian Evans Allvin, the chief executive officer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (one of several organizations that certify day care centers and preschools), once said in an interview, “There’s still this three-legged stool of quality, access, and cost, and to find all three, unless you are upper middle class, it is very difficult to do.”

What an understatement. That is why I am heartened to see that Michigan policymakers are finally responding to the needs of families and child care providers after many years of anemic support for child care.

The same energy is pulsing in states nationwide, where parents, teachers, caregivers, and day care owners are reminding their legislators of the old adage: Family comes first.

Every parent wants to know their kids are in great hands without fear they cannot make the rent or pay a mortgage. The efforts we are seeing in states will make more quality care affordable to working parents. If we care about the future of our children, let’s invest in them now.

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