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Fact-checking the Children’s Center closure

In the WCC Trustees’ most recent Spring Retreat, the WCC Administration announced that it would be permanently closing the Children’s Center. Executive Vice President Linda Blakey delivered a presentation explaining the rationale for the closure.

The decision to close the Children’s Center has already been taken and nothing is going to change that. Fine. But I hope I am not the only person who believes that when a well-compensated executive presents statements to the Trustees as facts, they should actually be … you know … facts.

In the presentation, EVP Blakey stated with certainty that the birthrate in Michigan in 1968 (when the Children’s Center opened), was 24.9 per 1,000 residents. She then stated that by 2019, the birthrate had dropped to 9.7/1,000.

Except that it didn’t happen that way.

EVP Blakey used a population measure called the crude birthrate, which measures births-per-thousand residents. It is “crude” because it does not use any nuanced demographics – just total population. In 1968, Michigan registered 159,058 live births, and the state had a population of 8,675,000 residents. That makes the crude birthrate in 1968 ((159,058/(8,675,000/1,000))=18.3352/1,000.

But a drop in the crude birthrate from 18.34 to 9.7 is still a major drop, right?

Sure, but that didn’t happen, either.

In 2019, Michigan registered 107,917 live births, and had a population of 9,986,857. That makes the crude birth rate in Michigan ((107,917/(9,986,857/1,000)) = 10.8 per thousand residents.

Now, the crude birth rate in Washtenaw County in 2019 was, in fact, 9.7 per 1,000, but you cannot compare the birth rate of the State of Michigan in some year that wasn’t 1968 to the crude birth rate of Washtenaw County in 2019 and claim that it somehow supports your decision to close the Children’s Center.

Facts matter when eliminating jobs and services

I do not dispute that the crude birth rate in Michigan is declining. It is. But there’s more to the birth rate story than meets the eye.

As I said earlier, Michigan recorded 107,917 live births in 2019, the last year for which data are available. The last time Michigan recorded this number of births was in 1941 (107,418). At that time, Michigan had a population of 5.438M people and a crude birth rate of 19.77. Michigan’s crude birth rate peaked in 1956 at 27.4. With a few minor exceptions, it has declined every year since.

In 1968, Michigan’s population was 8.675M. In 2019, it was 9.987M. One reason that Michigan’s crude birth rate has mostly declined since 1956 is that Michigan’s population grew by 15% in that time!

Crude birth rates above 30 are considered high and crude birth rates below 18 are considered low. By that standard, at no point in the past 120 years has Michigan’s crude birth rate been high. (Even at the height of the baby boom, Michigan’s crude birth rate was “normal!”) Further, the crude birth rate has been low every year of the Children’s Center’s existence.

The crude birth rate is neither a good measure of the need for childcare, nor should it be used to justify the closure of a childcare facility.

Losing the Children’s Center matters

At the end of the day, Michigan is Michigan and Washtenaw County is Washtenaw County, right? So what has been happening in Washtenaw County? In the past decade or so, Washtenaw County’s crude birth rate has dropped from about 11 to about 9.7. That is a drop, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as one might think.

Fewer children (600-700) are being born in Washtenaw County. But being born here isn’t the only way that children find themselves in Washtenaw County. Migration also impacts population, sometimes profoundly. According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), Washtenaw County’s school-age population is expected to increase by 10% in the next decade. As the population rises, the crude birth rate will drop unless the raw number of births also increases. Looking only at an area’s crude birth rate doesn’t give one the whole picture.

Washtenaw County also happens to have a lot of what the medical community calls “geriatric mothers.” In Washtenaw County, of all women of childbearing age (15-44), most babies are born to women ages 30-39. This also happens to be the age range at which women enter their peak earning years. Few women in this demographic will seek childcare from WCC.

On the other hand, women between the ages of 15-29 are still 1-2 decades away from their peak earnings. When these women have children, they do so at a life stage when their income is anywhere between 50% -100% below peak earning. These women are most likely to need low-cost, high-quality daycare. They’re also the women most likely to be on WCC’s campus. And they’re the women most likely to be hurt by the closure of the Children’s Center.

The Children’s Center serves the poorest students

Another interesting number to look at is the divorce rate. In 1968, Michigan logged 25,400 divorces. In 2019, 28,186 couples split up. While the divorce rate seems relatively constant, it changes based on economics. When the economy is very bad, unhappily married couples will often stay together because they can’t afford to split up.

According to research conducted at the University of Michigan, a divorce between parents drops the household income where a child resides by nearly half. Divorce has a very clear and convincing economic impact on the parties, but more so on a woman. Prior to divorce, a woman with young children may have been out of the job market altogether or working only part-time. She may also have earned less for the work she did. Having low-cost, high quality childcare is essential for a woman who is training to re-enter the job market. And that’s what’s now missing from WCC.

The numbers can tell many different stories, but we should expect that public officials use data accurately and appropriately when justifying the termination of 15 employees (whom they admit they’ve had no contact with) and killing a service that poor women and families depend on. We compensate the WCC executives quite well. We should not need to fact-check them when they rationalize bad decisions. We should also expect the Trustees to be able to know the difference between shit and Shinola.

Photo Credit: Greg, via Flickr