If the solution was simple or quick, we wouldn’t face a catastrophic day care shortage.
Unfortunately, this longstanding hobble to our community, families and economy has accelerated into a full-blown disaster during the pandemic. It’s the kind of crisis we all should worry about, because it will affect us all.
Don’t think so? Think again.
Those of us who aren’t in the fight to survive as parents raising young children in the Grand Traverse region in 2021 need only look to their favorite business to see the ramifications of a day childcare shortage that planted its roots long before the pandemic clobbered and reshaped our work ecosystem.
If the people who work in that shop, restaurant or office have children, it’s easy to detect the stress on their faces. But more often, the shortage manifests itself in what’s absent in those workplaces. Throngs of families in our region have faced difficult decisions to pull back from work to prioritize child care needs.
This is the worst kind of chicken and egg problem, too.
We have heard from droves of child care workers and providers that the economics of keeping space open for people who need their services simply isn’t standing up in a fast evolving economy. High wages across the board are enticing workers away from day care centers, and center operators are apprehensive to push wages higher to compete — being competative means raising rates families must pay, a shift that may further off-balance the cost-benefit equations working parents face.
Worse, it appears state regulators have done little or nothing to help day care center operators in business. In fact, some say state regulators have become more aggressive — to the point some providers are leaving the business altogether.
There probably is a state regulator somewhere in the bureaucracy who would bristle at the idea that a system meant to ensure childcare providers meet minimum licensing standards would cause or exacerbate a shortage.
But the numbers don’t lie — 40 percent of licensed providers have dropped out of the market in Grand Traverse County in the past three years. Neither do the collective experiences of the people who find themselves trying to maintain licensing.
There are some promising machinations aimed at loosening some of the regulatory structures that seem to be choking child care operators out of the market. Similarly, incentives for child care workers included in the budget deal state lawmakers recently approved won’t hurt.
That said, veteran child care center operator Karen Cooney was correct last week when she told a Record-Eagle reporter that the economics of child care are simply broken. Small measures may help a little, but the entire mechanism through which we provide child care needs revision.
We need incentives for center operators to pursue licensing; wages high enough for day care workers to take up the cornerstone profession; and mechanisms to help keep child care costs low enough for families to afford in order to work.
Maybe the answer is subsidies for center operators or parents or both. Or wage supports for day care employees.
No matter the path lawmakers decide to walk us down, the destination should be the same: a regulatory system that encourages, even supports safe, abundant and affordable child care.
We simply can’t continue to expect the people who support our work economy will stick around while bureaucrats fiddle with tweaks to an irreparably broken system.
It’s time for some real fixes, our working families are counting on it.