How Lack of Childcare in Metro Detroit is Impacting Working Moms

The child care crisis is not only forcing working moms (mostly) to make painful choices but also hurting Detroit’s future. Here’s what can be done.
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Over 12,000 Detroit parents are unable to work due to the lack of adequate child care, the city estimates. // Photograph by Erin Schmidt

Early one Friday morning six years ago, Christina DelPizzo was getting ready to leave her house to teach second graders at Detroit Country Day School when her phone rang. It was her daughter’s day care, informing her the center had just closed and was not opening back up — ever. The woman who ran the facility out of her Bloomfield Township home had health issues and had decided she was done.

Stunned, and with no relatives available to watch her 1-year-old, DelPizzo had no choice but to take the day off work. She then spent the next week frantically looking at day cares in the area.

“Every [child care center] I looked at that was awesome had a wait list. And if it didn’t have a wait list, it wasn’t awesome,” she says. “If I couldn’t feel good about where my child was spending their day, I couldn’t focus on caring for other people’s children or teaching or my career at all. I had to make the choice to leave teaching and stay home.”

This was 2018. DelPizzo’s colleagues were also struggling to find child care in the Birmingham-Bloomfield area, so she took matters into her own hands: She got licensed to open a home day care in Bloomfield Hills. She hired a public school teacher to assist, and her 12 spots filled up immediately. The business grew to a staff of 23 teachers and six locations across metro Detroit.

“We had these moms calling — like I was calling — in tears. They couldn’t find child care,” she says. “They worked so hard for their career, and they were really at a pivotal point, like what are they going to do? We felt so bad for these moms.”

Workers, Wages, and a Pandemic

In metro Detroit, too many parents struggle to find trustworthy, affordable caregivers for their young children. Wait lists can be months to a year or longer. The biggest challenge is the infant and toddler age group, where licensed centers must have one provider for every four children.

Even if you get a spot for your child, it won’t come cheap. According to Veronica Pechumer, early childhood consultant for Oakland Schools and director of Great Start Collaborative Oakland County, the average annual cost for full-time child care for two children in metro Detroit in 2021 was $21,880. That’s just under a third of the median income in metro Detroit ($74,573, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates).

She sums up the child care conundrum thus: Day cares want to pay staff a living wage, but “how do you pay a living wage, make sure you’re creating ratios that are safe for kids, and at the same time make it affordable for parents?”

Child care jobs simply don’t pay enough to attract and keep workers. The average wage for an Oakland County child care worker is under $15 per hour, according to county data, and employee benefits are rare.

And no one foresaw a global pandemic that would shut down child care centers nationwide, with many never reopening. “We were already moving into a child care crisis, and then COVID happened,” Pechumer says. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

At one point, Oakland County lost 30% of child care spots, largely due to a lack of workers. Many never returned. As Pechumer puts it, “I know many child care providers who left child care to go work at fast food because once those wages increased, they could make more at Wendy’s.”

Child care center shutdowns during the pandemic have mostly affected women, since mothers are still most often their children’s primary caregivers. While the initial employment loss for workers at the start of the pandemic greatly affected both men and women, women’s employment numbers failed to recover, unlike men’s, partially due to child care issues.

Detroit Deserts

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization focusing on education, investigated the crisis in 2022. It reported that 21 Michigan counties have so few child care options that they qualify as “child care deserts” — regions where three children compete for every available slot at an in-home or group center. Wayne and Macomb are close to qualifying as deserts. Oakland County, while also not considered a desert, has wait lists that can exceed 5,000 children.

Carol Tresik is director of the Wayne-Oakland-Macomb Resource Center for Great Start to Quality, which sets standards for early child care and education programs in Michigan. “The problem is, there’s not enough staff to serve the children,” she says. “For example, a center could be licensed for 250 children, and right now because of staffing, they are only taking, say, 100 or 50 children.” Coordinators at her organization’s 10 resource centers might call 20 to 30 providers before finding an opening.

In Detroit, the day care crisis is even more dire. There are about 52,000 children age 5 and under in the city. The city of Detroit’s Office of Early Learning estimates 37,000 of these children need day care, and only 21,500 slots are available through home day cares or centers. That means the city still needs 15,500 seats to fill the gap. That gap translates to over 12,000 Detroit parents who are unable to work due to the lack of adequate child care.

In southwest Detroit, the Chadsee, Springwells, and West Vernor- Junction neighborhoods qualify as deserts. What the office defines as
the Rouge Community in District 7 — home to Warrendale, Plymouth- Hubbell, and Aviation Sub — has the second highest child care need of all 54 Detroit neighborhoods. In fact, there are zero licensed community-based providers there.

Wrapped in Red Tape

For low-income families, child care subsidies from public tax dollars make it possible to have children and a job simultaneously. These subsidies, which cover all or some child care costs, have shown to increase parental employment, particularly among single mothers, according to the Office of Early Learning. Nearly 75% of families in Detroit may qualify for this support.

Having a job is one qualification for the subsidy, but there’s a potential catch-22. Pageant B. Atterberry, owner and CEO of New Beginnings Child Care & Atterberry Academy, shares the frustrating story of a mom who was approved for a subsidy by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for her kids to attend one of Atterberry’s Detroit centers.

“We process her paperwork, and then it takes two to three months for them to activate her,” says Atterberry, who runs eight centers in Detroit and has a staff of 100. “So her children can’t attend day care. They’re at home. She can’t go to work because she can’t find a babysitter. And then she loses her job, and then they cut her off because they’re like, ‘You don’t have a job.’”

The subsidy amount — which fluctuates depending on income — creates extra challenges for centers like Atterberry’s that are trying to be fair to families while covering rising operating costs.

“If the state is only paying, for example, $600 a month for a child, but then I have parents who are paying out of pocket $245 every week for child care, how is that fair to them?” she says. “Do I go back to these parents on assistance and say, ‘I need more money from you to cover your day care?’”

Some of her families live in cars or shelters and can’t afford to feed their kids, let alone pay for child care. “A lot of these kids, the only time they eat is when they’re with us.”

During the height of the pandemic, Ambirr Momon, a 31-year-old single mother who lives near Seven Mile in Detroit, struggled to find affordable and accessible care for her three youngsters. At the time, she worked as a human resources assistant for The Home Depot making $25 an hour. Even with a Bachelor of Arts in communications, Momon found the application process “very time-consuming and strenuous.”

“When it comes to meeting people where they’re at in our community, I feel like there’s a lack thereof. A lot of times these applications
are lengthy, they require a lot of research, a lot of writing and reading fundamentals that our community just doesn’t have, so for a lot of single mothers, they aren’t able to get through the application,” Momon says. She was able to secure a subsidy but still had a copay of $250 per month.

To simplify the child care search, United Way for Southeastern Michigan launched the online platform Connect4Care Kids in 2020 for Wayne County families. The free tool in English, Spanish, and Arabic helps determine eligibility for government-subsidized programs. Qualifying providers with openings then call parents back.

Since inception, Connect4Care Kids has seen 5,650 people check eligibility for subsidized programs, and over 2,600 have received calls from a provider regarding openings.

Bringing It Home

Nationally, about 30% of child care programs are home-based. In Detroit, that number is only 6%.

One reason? Zoning boards dictate where certain businesses can locate, and residential neighborhoods can be zealous about protecting their turf against additional traffic and noise or potential lowering of property values. When DelPizzo wanted to start her sixth location last year, she had to convince the city’s zoning board that her business would be a benefit to residents. The city council agreed, and Little Seedlings became the first licensed home day care in Grosse Pointe.

Also, not every child care entrepreneur can afford to pay the cost of a zoning permit. “It costs so much — over $1,000 — to open a program,” says Lisa Sturges, director of quality for Detroit’s Office of Early Learning. “Child care programs don’t make a whole lot of money, so to pay $1,000 to open that program is too much. We’re working to change many zoning rules, but that one specifically is a very key issue to opening more home-based programs.”

Child care is just one of several issues that may be prompting people to leave the city, she says, referencing Detroit’s shrinking population. “If they can’t find child care in Detroit, they’re going to go somewhere else. … We don’t want people leaving because they can’t afford child care.”

In a presentation on zoning and child care needs, the Office of Early Learning argued that access to stable, high-quality child care “sets the stage for Detroit’s future as a great American city” by boosting productivity and real estate values and setting young children up for success later in life.

In early February, the Detroit City Planning Commission was expected to vote on new zoning regulations that would make it easier to open home day cares. They would then move on to the City Council for approval.

Note: you can support the Detroit Office of Early Learning and Sturges’ work to change zoning rules by signing the change.org petition here

Tackling the Issue

Oakland County, while not considered a desert, has child care wait lists that can exceed 5,000 kids total. // Photograph by Erin Schmidt

The state of Michigan is battling the crisis on two fronts: more workers and more centers. Last August, the Early Childhood Investment Corp. awarded $2 million to several agencies within Michigan Works — a state-funded employment program — to start apprenticeships for early childhood workers. The initiative is part of a statewide goal to open or expand 1,000 child care programs by the end of 2024.

To help reach that goal, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launched “Our Strong Start,” part of the Caring for MI Future strategy, to make it easier for entrepreneurs to open in-home child care centers. Navigators guide applicants through the process, including helping them secure expedited licenses. Last November, the governor’s office announced Caring for MI Future had surpassed its goals a year early, opening 1,089 child care programs since May 2022 and creating nearly 37,000 new openings across the state.

That could help moms exasperated by the long wait lists and high costs. Sara Woelke, a Bloomfield mom of an infant and a 2-year-old, worked full time as an occupational therapist before her daughters were born. But after deliberating the financial pros and cons of child care, she decided to stay home to take care of them. “Would we be in a better financial spot if I had returned to work? Possibly,” she says. “But now that I have two kids, maybe not.”

Parents hope that Whitmer’s expanded funding for the Great Start Readiness Program will lead to universal free preschool for 4-year-olds within the next few years. Until then, DelPizzo’s child care business will continue to grow: Her seventh Little Seedlings opens in Berkley this spring. She still can’t meet demand, and getting on her wait list remains a competitive sport.

“Everyone calls us first when their pregnancy test becomes positive,” she says. “We get the call before Grandma and Grandpa get the call.”

Help Is Here

These resources can help you find a child care provider and more

Help Me Grow Michigan

Search for child care and call, text, or live chat with care coordinators to ask about any early childhood need; helpmegrow-mi.org.

Great Start to Quality Wayne-Oakland-Macomb Resource Center

Calculate your eligibility for subsidized child care and find a provider. 877-614-7328; greatstarttoquality.org.

Connect4Care Kids

Wayne County parents can see subsidized programs they’re eligible for, start the application process, and have providers with openings call them back; 313-395-3776 or unitedwaysem.org.

Our Strong Start

A portal for entrepreneurs who want to open a child care center, with guidance through the process; michigan.gov.


This story is from the March 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition. Plus, visit hourdetroit.com for more Metro Detroit community news