“Disappearing Day Care”

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: Traverse City Record-Eagle and Report for America; MuckRock; Detroit Free Press; Chalkbeat Detroit; and Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-08-28

Language: English

Authors: Luca Powell, Traverse City Record-Eagle and Report for America
Derek Kravitz, MuckRock
Christina Hall, Detroit Free Press
Koby Levin, Chalkbeat Detroit
Mohar Chatterjee, Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation


MuckRock is a nonprofit, collaborative news platform that brings together journalists, researchers and the public to request, analyze and share primary source data and documents in the public interest. In addition to its services, training and support programs, MuckRock’s news team works on original editorial projects, including both collaborative and independent reporting efforts on issues of public importance.

Project description:

Overwhelmed by demand, Michigan’s child care industry is in full-blown crisis, according to “Disappearing Day Care,” a 10-month-long investigation by MuckRock and a consortium of Michigan newsrooms. Reporters collected years of investigative reports by Michigan’s child care licensing bureau, testimonials from hundreds of parents and providers and analyzed new state child care data provided as part of pandemic federal relief programs. The data and documents show the problem is even worse than policymakers thought.

Impact reached:

The publication of the new data led to almost immediate change in Michigan.

After seeing the new data, Michigan’s Early Childhood Investment Corp. a public organization that contracts with the state to help run the child care system, said that it didn’t know the original child care desert figure was flawed. It said the original numbers were calculated using the best available data at that time.

Based on the new, larger numbers, “it’s clear that families do not have access to child care to meet their needs,” the ECIC said in a statement.

In September, Michigan’s child care licensing bureau started a new initiative, Our Strong Start, which pairs child care entrepreneurs with a staffer from the state licensing agency who helps with paperwork and obtaining inspections. The program sought to address problems raised in our reporting. Hundreds of new day care providers are now enrolled in the program.

And a few months later, Michigan changed how it determines what constitutes a “child care desert,” employing our new data analysis on their state dashboard.

Techniques/technologies used:

After months of FOIAs — and wrangling data from three recalcitrant state agencies — we obtained data documenting multiple rounds of Michigan’s Child Care Stabilization Grants. The data showed how Michigan used $1.4 billion in federal COVID-19 relief aid for the one-time grants. And they detailed, down to the dollar, the overhead, expenses and losses incurred by the state’s thousands of underwater day care providers.

In total, the data gave us two, never-before-seen glimpses into roughly 5,900 child care providers out of a total pool of roughly 7,900 across the state. To our knowledge, this is the first statewide analysis of billions of dollars of federal funds provided through the American Rescue Plan Act, or APRA.

To get federal funds, providers told the state about their current enrollments, as well as about their waiting lists, staffing needs and expenses. MuckRock, the Detroit Free Press and Chalkbeat Detroit then used those enrollments to help calculate daycare deserts, which previously had only been calculated with licensed capacity – or the maximum number of children that facilities can legally enroll. Interviews with providers indicated that enrollment numbers offered a more accurate picture of a county’s needs. This is often because facilities are short-staffed, but also because parents can’t afford the service.

To calculate so-called “childcare deserts,” we stitched enrollments from the 5,900 grant recipients with the licensed capacity of the 2,000 non-applicants. In this way, we assumed an enrolled-to-capacity scenario for centers for which we had no information.

What we found: the number of day care deserts in Michigan was nearly double previous estimates. A total of 20 counties have so few child care options that they qualify as deserts, the data shows. Another 23 Michigan counties, including Detroit’s Wayne and Macomb counties, are rounding errors away from qualifying as deserts as well.

Context about the project:

Luca Powell spent his Report for America year at Michigan’s Traverse City Record-Eagle, looking for data stories. And time and time again, Luca heard from parents that one of the biggest service gaps in Grand Traverse County was finding childcare there and in other rural swaths of the state. So he followed up with state agencies, asking them for numbers on the number of available child care slots, along with how federal COVID relief funds were being used to prop up daycare providers during the pandemic.

We found that the agencies would give us the data but only in raw form, without a data dictionary to guide us or categories for us to help piece it together. And we would have to request the data every three months, to ensure we were gathering the most updated information. So we worked with four newsrooms, a team of day care industry experts and more than 170 providers and parents to figure out what the data meant, and how best to explain it.

What we found was a lot worse than what policy experts, lawmakers, parents or providers expected. (Here’s our GitHub data repository of all of our findings and an accompanying video produced by the Detroit Free-Press.)


We also found that statewide capacity estimates of 373,000 day care “slots” for Michigan’s children were an illusion. The real figure for 0 to 5-year-olds is closer to 264,000, a gap of more than 100,000 slots that reflects staffing shortages, high costs and temporary closures caused by COVID-19, as well as the exclusion of more than 70,000 children over the age of 5 who are eligible for kindergarten programs.

And we found that crucial state aid missed nearly 2,400 day care providers, a reflection of disinterest in government help, even as the child care business model becomes increasingly untenable. Providers cited concerns around government intrusion into their curriculum and mistrust that the grants would really be tax-free.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

We produced a statewide callout for parents and providers to tell us what they were seeing and propose policy solutions. We received more than 170 responses, many of which included detailed budget documents of the facility operations along with one-time state and federal funding. We spoke with dozens of stakeholders and published eight of those ideas, along with accompanying analysis from experts, lawmakers and state agencies about their potential feasibility.

With Chalkbeat Detroit, we shared that solutions story here: https://detroit.chalkbeat.org/2022/8/31/23329594/michigan-child-care-crisis-parents-providers-solutions

Project links: