Closing The Gap

Many child-care workers don't earn a living wage—and that was the case even before the pandemic

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Of all the hardships child-care workers face, the biggest may be that they're not paid a living wage in many states, according to a new report.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the average early childhood worker earned just $11.65 an hour, according to the biennial 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tuesday's report finds that child-care workers earn enough to cover their basic needs in only 10 states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. The wages of workers with at least one child do not currently meet the standard of a living wage in any U.S. state. 

"By county standards, we're paying very well, and yet I have members of my team that receive food stamps," says Davina Woods, director of Excel Christian Academy in Burlington, North Carolina. "Out of the 14 full-time staff that are a part of my team, five of them have second jobs at places like Target."

Since the pandemic started, the situation hasn't improved for many child-care workers, an industry that is overwhelmingly female and a large percentage whom are Black, Asian or Latino. In fact, 60% of workers say their child-care programs have tried to reduce expenses through layoffs, furloughs and/or pay cuts since the pandemic started, according to a survey released in December by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"We have to assume the situation has only gotten worse," says Caitlin McLean, a researcher at the center and an author on the report. She notes that child-care programs have struggled financially for years, even before providers needed to reduce class sizes to adhere to social distancing protocols and purchase additional sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment for staff and children. 

"[The pandemic] is just showing again how this mostly female workforce has been really powering through to try to help children and families, but at great personal cost to themselves," McLean says.

Those who focus on early childhood education, working with children from birth to age 5, earn less than preschool and kindergarten teachers. Poverty rates are 7.7 times higher among early child-care workers than K-8 teachers, the center found. 

"We want the best and the brightest working with young kids, but the compensation is so low that it really means [there's] an early educator shortage," McLean says. 

Child-care workers face racial wage disparities

Black early educators face even more challenges than their white counterparts. The center's researchers identified a racial wage gap of $0.78 per hour among early child-care workers. The gap widens among those who work with preschool-aged children, with Black teachers earning up to $1.71 less per hour than similarly situated white teachers. 

"As difficult as it is for anybody to be an early educator in America because of these low wages, because of how difficult the job is and how little support you get, it's actually even worse for Black and Latina educators," McLean says. 

"It's important for people to understand that when you are already working in one of the lowest-paid occupations in the U.S. and then on top of that, you're also facing wage disparities — that's really a problem," McLean continues.

Finding solutions to the problem

To help address the lack of adequate compensation in the child-care industry, the center is advocating for fundamental policy reforms, such as providing direct public funding, prioritizing fair and adequate compensation for workers and even setting local or state wage standards.

Setting wage and benefit standards could address wage inequity, the report finds. The standards developed should account for job role, experience and education levels in order to level the playing field for compensation when it comes to race and type of child-care occupation.

"The biggest barrier to improve working conditions for early educators has been the lack of a publicly funded system of early care and education," McLean says, pointing to the public pre-K programs that already exist in many states or even the early childhood programs that are publicly funded in other countries. 

Already, the Biden administration has allocated $40 billion in funding for child care in the proposed $1.9 trillion relief package that is currently making its way through Congress. Additionally, the House version of the bill includes legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025.

But those steps may not be enough to change the landscape for child-care workers. "Even though the crisis has absolutely revealed the central role that child care plays in our society, it's also laid bare just how much educators' needs have been invisible," McLean says.

"We have more and more talk about how to change the system, how to improve the system, but not enough emphasis has been placed on the women who are actually doing this work," she says.

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