A ‘Desert’ Surrounded by Water

A “desert” isn’t something you’d expect to find in a region that’s home to the world’s largest fresh water supply. But it’s a serious reality to hundreds of area families and their children faced with a barren landscape of quality child care options. It’s a problem that not only poses a significant threat to the region’s economic growth, but more importantly to our area’s most-precious asset – the infants and toddlers of the families that are the future of our community.

Information from the KIDS COUNT Data Center, the country’s premier source of information on children and families, explains the infant/toddler “deserts” in the five-county Grand Traverse region – the empty areas between concentrations of child care providers where those services aren’t feasible or accessible to working parents. According to the data, there are an estimated 1,125 infants and toddlers (age 0 – 18 months) with all parents in the workforce across the five counties. That compares to a total licensed child care capacity of 659 in the region, a shortfall of more than 41 percent. That means more than four out of 10 infants and toddlers in the Grand Traverse area are without licensed child care for this most-critical period of their development.

The data also shows that most of the area’s licensed child care providers are concentrated in and around Traverse City, while many of our younger families live in outlying areas where housing costs are lower. Thus the term “desert,” as the child care services, as limited as they are, are located significant distances from the families who need them. Most of these areas have only a handful of licensed center and home-based child care providers who will accept children from 0-18 months.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been on the radar of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce for more than a decade. It’s among the reasons the Chamber teamed up several years ago with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District to host the Great Start Collaborative Traverse Bay, to get the local business community better connected with early childhood development and its importance to the well-being of the area’s workforce.

The Collaborative has done incredible work on a shoestring budget – including the launch of the highly successful 5toONE Neighborhood Centers network. It’s grown to nine centers located in some of the region’s most-underserved areas, serving some 75 children and dozens of area families each week, and hosting bi-weekly playgroups at most. It’s become a nationally-recognized and award-winning model for addressing early childhood needs in rural, less-populated areas.

It’s also why I’ve been involved as the co-chair of the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, a state-wide coalition of business leaders committed to investing in early childhood initiatives. It’s why the Chamber and its partners have pushed hard for more state funding for early childhood development. We’re fortunate to include Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and members of our Northern Michigan legislative delegation as allies in the effort.

But all of us need to step on the accelerator. As our region continues to grow and we bolster efforts to attract workforce talent, the need for affordable and accessible early childhood services continues to grow as well. It will require a comprehensive approach toward solutions that includes:

  • Supporting ways to increase the reimbursement rates for child care providers.
  • Increasing the eligibility entrance threshold of the federal Child Development and Care Program, which is federal funding used by the states to subsidize quality child care.
  • Decreasing the regulatory burden and costs for early childhood care providers.
  • Investing in more provider capacity for quality care.

It’s not a stretch to describe the regional child care gap as a crisis. But the public is growing crisis-weary and it’s a term too often associated with impossible situations without attainable solutions. The community can address the child care gap with a comprehensive (but urgent) approach that includes our social service and education organizations, government institutions, the business sector, our early childhood experts and service providers, and the families they serve. There’s no reason for any sort of “desert” to exist here in Northern Michigan. It’s time to make our early childhood landscape as lush as the rest of our amazing countryside.

Doug Luciani is the CEO of TraverseCONNECT and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at doug@traverseCONNECT.org