Alpena’s youngest need more support

We know that the earliest years of a child’s life are crucial.

Birth to age 5 is when we develop most rapidly, whether physically, intellectually, socially or emotionally. That lays the foundations for future wellbeing and success.

That’s why it’s key that Michigan makes sure our youngest residents — and their parents — are getting everything they need to thrive.

We know 683,798 children between the ages of 0 and 5 live in our state, and their access to vital health, nutritional and educational services varies drastically depending on their race, place, or income, according to a new set of fact sheets from the Michigan League for Public Policy and Kids Count in Michigan.

The data, broken down by county, shows how the state’s safety net is working for young children. It illustrates key gaps in program eligibility and participation rates, typically because of limiting eligibility requirements that negatively impact reach and access. The economic security and wellbeing of Michigan families with children is threatened when they’re unable to use programs like food assistance and child care subsidies.

Child care is a place for early learning and supports working parents or those continuing their education. In Michigan, child care for one infant consumes 19% of the income of a family at the state’s median income ($57,054), and 55% of income for a parent working at minimum wage — much higher than the recommended 7%. Just over a third (35%) of children between ages 0 and 5 in the state qualified for child care subsidy credits in 2019, but only 5% of children actually received those subsidies.

The reasons for that are numerous, and so must be the solutions policymakers and policy advocates use to address them. In one recent, successful example of bipartisan action, the state raised the threshold for child care subsidies from 150% to 185% of the federal poverty level in November.

Continued changes will ensure our early childhood system as a whole works best for families, providers and — most importantly — children.

But, even if child care were affordable for all, we still have a major problem with child care availability.

Due to a lack of government investment and a system where child care is “funded” predominantly by parents and underpaid child care professionals, child care providers tend to be concentrated in wealthier areas, where parents can afford to pay more. An estimated 44% of Michiganders live in child care deserts.

Rural communities, in particular, lack access to essentials like child care. Alcona and Montmorency counties are both considered child care deserts. Child care availability for Presque Isle and Alpena counties is considered low capacity. And only 4% of eligible families are receiving child care subsidy payments in Presque Isle, Alcona, and Montmorency counties, and the rate is only slightly higher at 5% for Alpena.

And we know things have become even more challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s good news, though, that came with the 2022 state budget, including $1.4 billion in child care funding and significant investments in child nutrition, infant and maternal health, and more.

But much more needs to be done to ensure that kids and families are able to access vital programs that support children’s growth and development..

There are plenty of advocates working on those issues, including statewide groups like Think Babies Michigan, the Early Childhood Investment Corp., Michigan’s Children, the Michigan League for Public Policy and its Kids Count in Michigan project.

And those groups have connections to countless parents, educators, health care providers, and others working to improve outcomes for kids. It’s time for all of us to work in concert to make sure our state makes the investments that will strengthen the fabric of our state for the youngest Michiganders and their families.

Interested residents can find more information at mlpp.org.

At the League, our hope is that those fact sheets can help spur continued bipartisan action to invest the billions of American Rescue Plan Act dollars currently at state policymakers’ disposal while prioritizing the needs of kids, young adults, parents, and caregivers.

Laura Millard Ross is communications director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.


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