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An IPR News look at northern Michigan's childcare crisis, through the eyes of parents, providers, employers and researchers.

Experts: Better pay, new thinking would improve child care sector

One of the many play areas inside Little Acorn Childcare. PC: Tyler Thompson
One of the many play areas inside Little Acorn Childcare, in Northport. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

In December, IPR News brought you "A Crisis of Care," a series on the difficulties of finding and affording child care in northern Michigan.

Here, we follow up with a closer look at one of the biggest issues facing the sector's workers — dismally low pay.

The average child care worker in Michigan makes about $13 an hour, in line with the country according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but not nearly enough to attract and retain as many workers as are needed.

Mary Manner is senior director of United Way of Northwest Michigan. She said there’s been a serious lack of investment in the industry. Economically, she calls child care a failed sector.

“It doesn’t fit with supply and demand. We need to confront the basic reality that child care providers are not charging enough," Manner said. "And parents cannot afford to pay any more.”

Manner said there is some investment from the state, like funding to increase the supply of high-quality infant toddler child care.

"We need to confront the basic reality that child care providers are not charging enough. And parents cannot afford to pay any more.”
Mary Manner
United Way of Northwest Michigan

But she said it’s not perfect and doesn’t address more money for better pay for the caregivers themselves.

“Are we really investing in what we need, which is our workforce?" she said.

The low pay disproportionately affects women.

The National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, finds that 95% of childcare workforce is majority women, specifically of color and that they’re “egregiously underpaid.”

“They are the ones who, you know, generally bear children, although we know that can be in different gender groupings as well," she said. "Because of that, they tend to just kind of get associated with all these particular duties.”

Rachel Wilczeweski is a sociology professor at Northwestern Michigan College. She has a Ph.D. in sociology with a specialization in gender, justice and environmental change.

“We are functioning on our implicit biases and what we think and what we've learned about the world, and we associate women with caregiving,” she said.

That’s not to say men don’t want to care for children. Wilczeweski said a lot of progress has been made on that assumption, but social institutions haven’t caught up to that cultural desire.

“And so there's a lack of flexibility within, schools and workplaces and different corporations, companies, etcetera, where they're not really building in that, you know, sort of expectation for men to be able to take on the caregiving role,” she said.

Wilczeweski would like to see a solid parental leave policy for both parents like in many Scandinavian countries. Wilczeweski said there needs to be a shift in understanding in what caregivers do.

It’s not just “watching” kids when their parents work. The job involves teaching them, helping them grow, develop new social skills and giving them a good foundation to function as they move toward adulthood.

“Their wages should reflect the prestige that we need to give to that occupation," she said. "In a capitalist society, we value a lot of things with the money we put behind them, we see that with the, with the income that people are making.”

It’s hard to change that system. There are some programs that are trying to deal with affordability – like Tri-Share, where employers, parents and the government split the cost of child care.

People like Mary Manner, at the United Way, say the programs and funding is one thing, but we need to fundamentally change the way it thinks about child care: as crucial to the way kids develop and the way society functions.

“We are literally building brains. Child care is no different than other infrastructure," Manner said. "We need roads, we need electricity, we need water, we need all those things. We need childcare.”

Tyler Thompson is the Morning Edition host and reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.