Spotlight Exclusives

Michigan Looks to Public-Private Partnerships to Boost Child Care Access

Karen Ann Kling Karen Ann Kling, posted on

As access to affordable child care remains a persistent barrier for families across the country, Michigan increasingly is looking to public-private partnerships as a potential solution. New research and analysis from Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan looks at some of the approaches showing promise as well as ways that existing state programs could be made more accessible. Karen Ann Kling, assistant director of policy and impact at UM’s Poverty Solutions, spoke with Spotlight recently about the work. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can we start with an overview of the work Poverty Solutions has been doing in Emmet County?

I think it was back in 2020 when we were approached by a private donor in Emmet County who was interested in supporting our work to understand the drivers of youth poverty there. They were very aware of the inequality between populations in that northern Michigan region, with the very wealthy populations that have second and summer homes, but then the working population who have significantly higher poverty rates. And so, they wanted to see what was driving youth poverty.

I worked on this project from the very beginning, and we did interviews with dozens of community members. And what we heard from them was there is this triangle of trouble, which was a lack of affordable housing, a lack of access to affordable child care and accessible child care, and then a lack of transportation. We were looking for opportunities to influence change in one or all of those levers and found that there was a lot of momentum in terms of innovative thinking around solving the child care dilemma in Emmet County. There was a community organization, North Central Michigan College, that was galvanizing an effort to engage the community to co-create solutions for a more sustainable child care initiative.

We worked to get to know the folks at North Central Michigan College and share resources with them, such as the data that we had collected on youth poverty and child care needs in the community. We wanted to support their effort for community-engaged action, so we provided data analysis and data collection. We worked with them to launch a formal study in their region to collect insights from child care providers, parents and advocates to better understand the landscape of the child care needs, and provide evidence that could supplement and support a set of recommendations for innovative things to test in the community as far as solutions.

And do you have the results of that work?

Yes, and it has been used to inform the next steps of this child care initiative, which we’ve kind of stepped back from. They’re taking it for the next phase, which is to pilot some innovations.

Did you find that in Emmet County, the drivers on the child care issue are like most other places in the country—a combination of a lack of available child care, cost, and the difficulty paying a living wage for child care providers?

Yes, it’s a mix of all those three. One of the things we found was that child care is most scarce in rural areas in Michigan, places with seasonal economies where people work outside of the typical nine to five, who work in tourism and restaurants and might need coverage in the evenings or might have to drive long distances to their place of work.

What are some of the potential solutions that they’re going to be piloting?

There is a statewide pilot, called the Tri-Share Child Care Initiative, that they’re working to support. It’s a way for employers, parents, and the government to share the cost of child care in three ways, splitting it in equal thirds, which is unique in that the employers are contributing. It recognizes the stake that employers have in solving the problem, to ensure that their workers can focus on their jobs without worrying about their child care needs. That’s something that we see promise in, but there’s a lack of awareness of the program and they’re still working through the early stages of the bumps of getting enrolled and making that an easy and frictionless process.

They’re also trying to do some things that increase the supply of child care in northern Michigan, specifically by increasing the wages and the competitiveness of the child care industry as a job. They’re trying to put together what they call a true cost of care fiscal model which includes the cost of paying people living wages commensurate with their experience and credentials. And knowing that charging that true cost of care is going to put additional pressure on the price of child care, which is already too high for most parents, they’re working to catalog all of the potential subsidies and resources from the government and philanthropy that could help pay for the gap.

So, if you were a parent in Emmet County, there would be sort of a one-stop shop to see if you qualified for any of those subsidies?

Right. North Central Michigan College is trying to start up what they’re calling a lab school, which would be like a child care program that is officially sponsored by the college that would test this model with the true cost of care, and then they would have their staff and connections with other experts help connect a person to the suite of resources to help them pay for the true cost of care.

That’s a great idea. And then you did separate work on Michigan’s Child Development and Care subsidy?

Yes. Through the American Recovery Plan Act, the state had expanded eligibility for the CDC subsidy. They raised the income threshold so that over 100,000 more families in Michigan were eligible for the subsidy and they wanted us to help them understand ways to increase the take-up of that program, which has remained low even though it’s more accessible for more people. I think in our brief, we said that only 10% of the families that are within the income eligibility are actually receiving the subsidy. We did a lot of interviews with parents and providers and advocates to understand what the barriers were and then communicated our findings back to the state to help them hopefully address those barriers and increase the usage of their tool.

And what were the major barriers? Was it that people were not aware of it or it’s too difficult to do the application?

The main one, which is not surprising is that it’s hard to find a place to send your child when there’s such a lack of child care. In Michigan, there’s four children under 12 for every available child care spot and then it’s even harder to find a child care provider that accepts the CDC subsidy. The supply side problem is the major one that I see, but then there’s also difficulty in navigating all the paperwork. More and more of the process has shifted to be online and people really want there to be someone that could just sit down with them and walk them through it.

For populations where English is their second language, language barriers were difficult to navigate, especially with the stress and pressure that comes with trying to access government programs. It’s especially hard to do in another language. And then, fear and distrust of the government. People are afraid that if they apply for this program, they’re going to lose their other benefits, or they could be tracked by the government in ways that they don’t want to be. There is also this difficult issue where if parents are in a tenuous relationship with the other partner, both partners need to be listed on the application and there needs to be a formal child support agreement. And some people just don’t want to have any sort of communication interaction with their partner.

There also is this really difficult problem, which we call the Catch-22, where with a few exceptions, you need to be employed in order to apply for the child care subsidy. You either need to be employed, completing your high school degree in a college program or in family preservation activities, which would be things like family counseling. But people felt like they could not acquire employment without child care, and so it becomes a circular problem.

And to implement any of those changes, is that something that requires legislative approval or is that something that the Whitmer administration could do unilaterally?

A lot of these things, like the structural challenges with increasing the supply of childcare, don’t require legislative changes. Increasing access to in-person supports for applying for the subsidy would not, nor would more communication and information to people that would allay their fears of working with the government. I think there could be a legislative component to eliminating the employment exception, but by and large, most of those things are programmatic.

Another thing that I just want to highlight is that if the solution to increasing the supply of child care is to raise the wages for providers, and I do believe that is the case, we have to think of ways to do that without pricing out parents who are already struggling to afford child care. And that means that we need to think really creative creatively about what kinds of resources from the government or philanthropy, or even employers, can be used to contribute to that solution. What we found in Emmet County from surveying the employee/employer landscape is that a majority of employers were actually interested in supporting a solution for child care. That may be a potential source of support that we haven’t leveraged in the past as much as we could have.

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