Michigan Leads Nation … In Denying Child Care To Low-Income Families

Amber York

The cost of child care is one of the biggest expenses facing many families in the United States. For some, the cost is more than their rent or mortgage payment. Low income families especially struggle to find affordable child care.

Child care providers are among the lowest paid workers, are most likely to be living in poverty, and barely making ends meet for their own families.

Yet, lawmakers in Michigan are about to walk away from $20.5 million in federal funding for child care because they won’t commit to spending $7.5 million in state money to help working families. Michigan has the disappointing distinction of being the state that returns the most unused federal funding dollars every year. In 2014, Michigan missed out on $9.3 million of federal funding.

Michigan’s limit on the amount of income a child care assistance recipient can earn is also the lowest in all 50 states. That means Michigan only offers assistance to the bare minimum number of needy families.

Some legislators have named underutilization of the program as a reason for not supporting funding, but Michigan also makes it incredibly difficult to apply for child care assistance. Parents trying to get help report onerous paperwork, long waits, and confusion over the process.

At the recent Child Care Policy Summit in Lansing, participants heard from many people about road blocks to receiving assistance.

Marnese Jackson is one of them. The Michigan mother found paying for full day care for her two children was so costly that she was forced to delay starting a new job until the start of the school year. Paying for full-day child care during the summer would have left her family with such a low net income that it made no financial sense for her to work until the children were back in school.

The Michigan Department of Human Services determined that Jackson was ineligible for child care assistance. In some cases, families have been blocked from child care assistance for earning just $20 over the threshold.

Between 2006 and 2013, 41,200 children in Michigan lost child care assistance. While the number of children living in poverty in Michigan has increased, the number of people in Michigan receiving child care and income assistance has fallen. It’s not because we are doing better – it’s because Michigan keeps reducing access to assistance.

It’s especially troubling when legislators just don’t “get it.” One Republican legislator asked: “Why can’t one of the parents stay home, like my wife did?”

Well, maybe there is just one parent. Or perhaps both parents earn low wages and need to work. There are a myriad of reasons.

Nationwide, Michigan ranks twelfth from the bottom in the amount of Child Care and Development Block Grant funds spent per child: $4615 per child in 2014. The national average is $5945 per child with District of Columbia, at the top of the chart, spending $11737 per child annually.

“This is a crisis for thousands of Michigan families who qualify for child care assistance but can’t get it. Michigan’s decision to cut eligibility and leave much-needed federal dollars on the table is unconscionable,” says Jessica Juarez, deputy director of policy for People’s Action Institute, a national network of grassroots organizations.

Juarez was a panelist at the Child Care Policy Summit in Lansing.
“I’m proud that parents, providers and advocates are standing up and saying enough is enough,” she said.

Child care workers, overwhelmingly women and people of color are charged with protecting and teaching our children during the most tender years of their development. But their pay and benefits don’t come close to reflecting the value of their work.

It’s a disgrace that the number of Michigan children living in poverty without access to child care is rising while Michigan lawmakers refuse to access millions in funding for kids. We can’t allow elected officials to send back money that our children desperately need. Michigan legislators should be investing in a system that supports Michigan’s kids and families.

Amber York is an organizer with Michigan United and a mother of two school-age children in Detroit. She has volunteered extensively in Detroit and overseas with a focus on education, community development and racial justice.

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