STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Scholarships for babies

Dustin Dwyer

We think of scholarships as a way to help more students go to college. But there’s a new scholarship program in Michigan that has nothing to do with college. It offers scholarships to babies.

If you have a baby and you want to have a job, or you need to have a job, you have to find childcare. And childcare costs money—thousands of dollars a year.

If your income is below the federal government’s poverty line—about $24,000 a year for a family of four—the federal government will help you pay for childcare. But if you’re at, say, $28,000 a year, you’re ineligible.  

“I’m sure that we can all imagine the challenges faced by families of four at that income level who would just be trying to meet basic needs,” says Judy Samelson, head of the state’s Early Childhood Investment Corporation

Last week, Samuelson stood in the multipurpose room at the Spartan Child Development Center in East Lansing to announce a new program that would help families who just miss out on getting childcare assistance. It’s called Early Start, and it will be administered through a public charity called the Women’s Caring Program (WCP).

All parents have to make a calculation when it comes to childcare. But at the bottom of the income ladder, that calculation can be the difference between being on welfare and getting a job.

WCP has been around for 15 years.  Last year it spent nearly 300 thousand dollars on childcare scholarships, much of it funded with private donations.

“Education is the foundation of economic development," says WCP board chair Rachele Downs. "And early childhood education is the strongest investment we can make in education to support workforce development."

Detroit Edison is one of the biggest investors in that for WCP. Diane Antishin from DTE was also at the press conference to explain what the utility gets out of its donation—basically, a better workforce. "

"For our current workforce, scholarships like Early Start support working parents so that they do not have to choose between taking a job and providing care for their child," said Antishin. "Or between taking a job with higher pay and potentially being disqualified for state assistance."

All parents have to make a calculation when it comes to childcare. But at the bottom of the income ladder, that calculation can be the difference between being on welfare and getting a job. If you’re just above that poverty line, spending thousands on childcare will take you below it real quick.

The state is stepping in to help families that aren’t necessarily destitute. They’re just having trouble making the child care calculation work. It’s putting $700,000 into the program to help families like Tiffany Burns’. She’s in medical school. Her husband left the military and is in college. Their daughter Yalana will be one of the first out of 200 kids to get the new scholarship.

Burns also points out that more is needed. She says she had a patient who was a mother of three who wanted to go back to college, but the mother was worried she couldn’t afford decent childcare.  

"I wonder today if she knew about the Women’s Caring Program and scholarships like this, if that might have made a difference for her," Burns said. "If that would have given her the push to find affordable quality, licensed daycare and quality care for her children, if she would have gone back to school and furthered her education."

Many parents, of course, would like to be able to stay home with their kids, especially when they’re under two years-old, which is the targeted age for the new Early Start scholarships. For many families, that’s a good option.

But if it’s not an option, because the parents have to work, or they have to go to school to build a better future, then the question is whether or not they can afford quality, enriching childcare, like that of the Spartan Child Development Center.

That’s why there’s a scholarship program for babies.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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