The child care system is broken; Congress must act

As a mother of three young children and a proud provider of child care, I cry out loud for the attention of Congress: the child care crisis in our country has reached a catastrophic level.

The pandemic has exposed longstanding issues facing the child care industry – for families, providers and children. Our elected leaders must understand the realities faced by providers like me and families like mine and bring about the change that is needed now.

Over the years, I’ve worked at a local early learning center, for Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Preschools, and even spent five years running a home-based child care program. I love my job and know its value to our children, but I am regularly overworked and underpaid. At the same time, I know the pain and frustration that parents in Michigan face as they try to find affordable, high-quality child care close to home.

The first problem is access. For most families I know, both parents have to work to pay rent or a mortgage and put food on the table. Staying home with my boys is not an option. I need – and want – to work. But when I was trying to re-enter the workforce after the birth of my third son, I couldn’t accept a job without also finding child care.

We put our baby on three different waiting lists, but no one had a baby opening. Long before the pandemic, there was not enough supply to meet the demand for childcare services in most parts of the country. Since the start of the pandemic, this problem has only gotten worse. Even after widespread closures stabilized at the start of COVID, providers still cannot operate at full capacity as many struggle to maintain full staff.

Early committed and dedicated educators are leaving in droves for jobs at places like Target and Starbucks, which offer better pay and benefits like health insurance and paid time off. According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, Michigan’s first educators with bachelor’s degrees are paid 21.5% less than their counterparts in the K-8 system.

Meanwhile, providing the high-quality services children need in their early years of brain development requires special skills from teachers, often much longer workdays, and an increased risk during a pandemic of working with children too young people to be vaccinated. Within my own network of former colleagues, I can count on one hand the number of them who are still involved in childcare.

The second issue is affordability. In the end, I found a job at a center that was able to provide a place for Calvin, but even with a break in tuition, his care consumes half my salary. I want to be clear: without this reduction, I cannot pay for the care that I provide to other children for my own child.

Here in Michigan, the average annual cost of child care is over $10,000 per child. In fact, the child care calculation does not work for anyone. In our current system, without the public investment we need, providers can only charge prices that enough families can work, which falls far short of covering the true cost of providing care. This means early educators are paid far less than we are worth, rarely a living wage. Early educators like me will continue to leave their jobs for higher paying opportunities if substantial changes are not made.

The third problem is quality. I am proud to be a child care provider. As difficult as this job can be at times, I know how important the early years are to a child’s healthy development. I am passionate about creating a safe and nurturing environment for children in my community, helping them learn and grow while their parents are at work. Every child deserves a good start and every parent wants the best for their children. Unfortunately, our broken child care system places too many families in poor quality child care – and that includes the families of child care professionals, too. Years of research tell us that poor quality care for today’s children has dire consequences for our future. We know better.

I call on Michigan policymakers, including Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, to share my passion and support the providers, families, and children they represent. We have been clamoring for congressional attention for decades. Without intervention, a failing system will only get worse. I have heard many policy makers talk about the need to resolve this crisis, but we need action.

Congress must pass comprehensive legislation that will allow child care providers to support their staff members with competitive salaries and help families access affordable, high-quality early education. Our future, and that of so many families like mine, depends on it.

Emily Rodenbeck is a mother and educator at Temperance.

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