LaQuanda Murphy is counting down the months until September.
That’s when her four-year-old son, Kaycen, will qualify for free preschool through the state’s Great Start Readiness Program. It’s a big deal to the Saginaw area single mother for two reasons: her son will get a high-quality education, and her $500 monthly bill for childcare will disappear.
“I definitely feel it in my pocketbook,” said Murphy, 29, who works for the U.S. Postal Service. “It all just boils down to readjusting, because I have to do it.”
While Michigan provides free, state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds from low-to-moderate-income families, it offers little financial help for families with children ages three and younger.
Research has shown that children’s brains develop rapidly from birth to age three – making early childhood learning an important stepping stone. High-quality childcare promotes strong social, emotional and language development, putting children on the path to success by the time they enter kindergarten.
It’s a lack of investment that hurts families and the economy, experts say.
Often, it means struggling families must settle for lower-quality care – such as a family friend or neighbor down the street – rather than a licensed program. Or parents must cut back on their hours on the job or stay out of the workforce entirely.
“Parents across the economic spectrum in Michigan are challenged with childcare costs,” said Matt Gillard, President and CEO of Michigan’s Children, an advocacy group focusing on the needs of low-income children and families. “Parents want high-quality childcare opportunities for their children when they’re at work. Policy makers need to do a better job of prioritizing that.”
A significant expense
High-quality childcare can be one of the most significant expenses families face.
In Michigan, the cost of care for an infant – typically the most expensive age – averages $10,281 per-year at a childcare center and $7,179 at a private, home-based provider, according to Childcare Aware of America, an advocacy group.
If you’re looking for help footing the bill, chances are you don’t qualify. The state of Michigan provides assistance, but only for some of the poorest families.
Currently, that’s families at 130 percent or less of the federal poverty rate. For a family of three, that translates into an annual income of roughly $26,600.
It’s one of the most restrictive income eligibility requirements in the nation.
Fourteen other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Maryland and Alabama, don’t provide help to a family of three with an annual income above $30,630, according to a 2017 study from the National Women’s Law Center.
“This is putting pressure on families,” said Pat Sorenson, a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy, a progressive think tank focusing on social issues. “The child care system is so grossly underfunded in this state.”
(This map shows average childcare costs by county in 2015. Source: Michigan League for Public Policy.)
There are states, however, where childcare assistance is a far different story.
Take Maine, for example, where a family of three can earn an annual income of $54,589 and still qualify for assistance, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Murphy wishes Michigan would help more families shoulder the expense.
She’s been bringing her son, Kaycen, to Building Blocks Childcare & Preschool in Saginaw since he was three. She’s thrilled with the care and education he receives there. He’s built friendships, strengthened his social skills and learned about numbers and words.
“It’s so important because he’s learning so many skills that I would not be able to teach him one-on-one,” she said. “He’s learning something new every day.”
Murphy isn’t looking for a “handout,” but says paying her monthly bill has kept her from putting more money aside for goals like paying off her car and saving for her family’s future.
“If we ever hit a hardship, I want to be ahead of the curve,” she said. “I don’t want to be just riding the wave.”
High quality care
Differences between high- and low-quality childcare aren’t tough to spot.
High-quality providers create a stimulating environment. They plan for each day, designing games that incorporate counting and literacy, such as matching words to letters and sounds.
Good providers also help children develop strong social skills, so they can better deal with conflict and have fewer outbursts when they don’t get their way, said Tomoko Wakabayashi, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Child Studies at Oakland University.
“The kids gain the skill of thinking for themselves, critically thinking, regulating their behavior, those kinds of foundational skills that would be important as they transition into school,” she said.
Often, such programs are taught by educators with an associate or bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or child development.
For infants and toddlers, high-quality care means a warm, nurturing environment where children are safe to explore and learn through games and other activities. Individual attention is paramount, with state quality guidelines recommending no more than three infants or toddlers for every adult.
Such care is often pricey.
Heather and Colt Dykstra feel the expense every month.
The couple – she’s a special education teacher and he works at Arcadia Brewing Company in Kalamazoo – estimate they fork over upwards of $1,000 a month to send their one-year-old daughter to the at Borgess Child Development Center in Kalamazoo.
It’s not necessarily breaking their bank account. But when combined with other expenses – a home mortgage, groceries and car payments – the couple doesn’t have much wiggle room left in their budget.
“It’s frustrating because it costs so much,” said Heather Dykstra, 32, who lives in Richland. “I definitely wish that one of us could stay home. That’s not really possible.”
The federal government’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs provides free care for families with children from birth to age 5. But the income requirements are even stricter than Michigan’s.
A family of three, for instance, cannot have an annual income higher than $20,420 per year to qualify.
Nicole Liggins has seen the struggle to pay for childcare play out firsthand.
She owns Building Blocks Childcare & Preschool in Saginaw, and she prides herself on the quality of care she provides. Her employees have degrees or certificate in early childhood education, class sizes are kept small, and children participate in games and activities designed to build their social skills and teach them about math, literacy, science and art.
But such care costs money.
Liggins estimates that 70 percent of her families receive state or federal assistance to help pay the weekly tuition rate, which ranges between $100 to $140 per child.
Those who have to pay on their own can struggle. There’s been times when she’s had to discontinue care for families who can’t afford the service, she said.
“It breaks my heart,” said Liggins, who has owned Building Blocks for close to five years. “But I have a business to run.”
When a family meets Michigan’s income eligibility requirement for childcare assistance, the state provides that assistance in the form of a reimbursement to childcare providers.
Last year, that reimbursement totaled $828 per month for a 1-year-old, according to a study by the National Women’s Law Center.
In some instances, that’s not enough to cover the full cost of care.
The center estimates childcare for a 1-year-old in Michigan has a market rate of $1,027 per month.
“The subsidies aren’t big enough,” Ann Kalass, CEO of Starfish Family Services, a nonprofit childcare provider serving metropolitan Detroit.
Families could be getting a little more help moving forward.
Michigan is expected to receive an additional $65 million in federal funding for childcare assistance this year. And state lawmakers are taking steps to use that funding to expand eligibility – to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
That translates into $30,630 for a family of three.
Advocates are pleased with the increase, but they say more work is to align Michigan’s income eligibility levels with leading states.
“Even if they are eligible for a subsidy, some families may not have the resources needed to purchase high-quality care or more expensive infant care,” said Sorenson, of the Michigan League for Public Policy.
“This is about getting children prepared for the future,” she said.