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Michigan is a disgrace when it comes to child care

Sep 23, 2014

Yesterday, the Michigan League for Public Policy held a press conference to announce that our state is a disgrace when it comes to child care.

They didn’t say it that way, but I will.

What the nonpartisan league actually said was:

“Michigan’s child care program falls far short in ensuring high-quality child care.”

We are living in an age when more parents than ever need to work, and our politicians demand they work. And we are making it harder and harder for them to do so.

Over the last 10 years, Michigan has cut 70% of the funding for subsidized child care.

Back in 2005, before the Great Recession, 65,000 low-income parents got child care help from the state so that they could keep working.

Many more are in trouble now, but we only help a third as many.

Forget human compassion; from purely a business standpoint, this makes no sense.

To quote the league:

“Access to safe, stable and high-quality child care reduces employee absenteeism and turnover and improves businesses’ bottom line.”

And in just case you are one of those starry-eyed optimists who believes in the future, it goes on:

“... because learning begins at birth, it is in child care that many children are developing the basic language, cognitive, and emotional skills needed to succeed in school and beyond.”

There’s no doubt investing in child care makes sense.

However, we aren’t.

You’ll have to look pretty hard to find any mention of this in the media today. The Legislature itself can’t be bothered to care about children. They were too busy yesterday worrying about taxation rules for e-cigarettes.

But child care is vitally important.

Not long ago I gave a final exam one night in Detroit, only to discover that one of the students had left her two toddlers out in the hall. They could easily have been snatched, and I called the police. The woman had no other place to put them.

Tragically, we came very close to avoiding all this. Forty-three years ago, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill called the Comprehensive Child Development Act. It would have provided for a network of national funded, locally run, child care centers.

They were going to be open to everyone, not just the poor. People would have paid according to their income, and the centers would have provided not only education, but medical services and nutrition.

President Richard Nixon nearly signed this bill, but vetoed it in the end because he said it would mean that Washington was in favor of “communal approaches to child-rearing.”

That was nonsense then and is more so now, when millions of parents don’t have family members on whom they can rely for help.

There are lots of things Michigan could do about this, from fully restoring the earned income tax credit to adding more state inspectors to make sure licensed facilities do meet state standards.

And – oh yes – we could make a little more money available for child care, maybe disguising it as aid to businesses.

But we not only aren’t doing it, few of this year’s candidates seem to be even talking about it.

And that may be the biggest scandal of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.