The Care Gap

The Care Gap

While childcare costs have soared, wages in the industry have stayed flat—leaving nearly half of childcare workers dependent on public benefits to survive. Why is the labor of educating children worth so little?

Children in Pomona, California join a protest against cuts to preschool (InSapphoWeTrust / Flickr)

For all her working life, educating young children has been LiAnne Flakes’s calling.

When she started working in the 1990s, practically anyone could get a job teaching preschool. “Now,” the Florida-based early childhood teacher said in a recent interview for the Nation, “you’re being required to go to school.” Flakes earned additional educational credentials accordingly, developing expertise on the developmental pathways of the children she teaches—their first letter and number recognition, how they learn to socialize, and how each day’s lessons at her publicly subsidized daycare center shape their minds for the rest of their lives. “They’re developing personality, they’re developing temperament, they’re developing all of that at this age. So as preschool [teachers] we are the ones that help to shape them for the future,” she says.

But while she’s proud of how her field has matured, she’s disappointed that her wages have lagged. “I think we’re just as important as an elementary school teacher,” she says, “we’re just as important as a high school [teacher] or college professor.” There’s a bitter subtext: she currently earns $12.50 an hour, or less than two-thirds the pay rate of a typical public high-school teacher.

For most of Flakes’s career, the wages for workers in her field, which includes childcare workers as well as certified preschool teachers, have stagnated. As far as teachers and educators are concerned, says Flakes, “We are the most underpaid workers in America.”

Preschool teacher paychecks look even thinner when compared to the swelling cost of raising a child. But while childcare costs have soared—spending in the sector has doubled, with about $2.4 billion a year spent on early childhood care and services—wages in the industry have stayed flat, and nearly half of childcare workers rely on public benefits to survive. Why is the labor of educating children worth so little?

According to federal data, the median pay for an early childhood educator in 2012 was just $10.60 per hour, roughly comparable to a retail sales worker’s salary. According to the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, workers in the field haven’t seen growth in the real value of their wages since 1997, even though the amount spent on early childhood services has nearly doubled.

Overall spending for early childhood services is driven by a variety of factors, including the rising cost of elite private programs, the growing demand for childcare among working parents, and higher standards for early childhood programs, which make regulatory compliance costlier. But whatever fuels the “market” for care, the money isn’t trickling down to workers like Flakes, who foster this increasingly precious phase of child development. Ironically, many poorer children are underserved by the childcare and preschool systems. Investments in early childhood are stratified by class, as is public funding for daycare and pre-K programming. Overachieving parents purchase state-of-the-art private childcare and “enrichment” activities for their kids, designed to prepare them for a lifetime of success. Meanwhile, middle-class and poor families struggle to pay for the basic daycare and preschool services they need in order to work. Poor families spend close to a third of their incomes on childcare. A decent quality early childhood program costs at least $6,500 per year, and full-time infant daycare costs about $10,000 a year. Nationwide, the Child Care Aware advocacy campaign reports, infant daycare costs on average more than 40 percent the state median income for a single mother.

Though federal and state subsidies under the Child Care and Development Block Grant—distributed through states in the form of vouchers—help some poorer households cover childcare costs for working parents, this generally excludes parents who are not in the workforce. Childcare burdens can keep a parent from going out to search for a job. Limited childcare subsidy vouchers exclude families earning above the eligibility threshold of about $60,000 a year (well short of a family living wage in many American cities). And since about 40 percent of all workers have irregular or part-time schedules that may vary week to week, childcare may be unavailable regardless of price, since there’s no daycare that fits a night-shift schedule.

Faced with such barriers, many parents rely on grandparents or other relatives or friends to babysit for free, as people always have. But increasingly, both government policy and families themselves prefer institutional childcare. Yet even in its professionalized form, childhood services are outsourced to low-wage female workers. About 95 percent of childcare workers and 97 percent of preschool teachers are women. Both the demand for services and the supply of caregiving labor are driven by women at both ends of the economic hierarchy—and the dichotomy between those receiving care and those giving it gets obscured in public discourse about work-life balance, a concept often associated with “career women” and not everyday workers. Women’s achievements in the white-collar workplace have often depended on the undercompensated labor of poorer peers.

The low wage floor in the field of early childhood care acts as a subsidy for wealthier parents purchasing top-quality childcare. And here’s where class divides intertwine with care gaps: poorer teachers and caregivers who are raising children of their own can’t afford the high quality of education they’re trained to provide for other people’s kids. And so, like many other working-class parents, teachers’ children too fall into the yawning developmental gap between rich and poor kids, a gap that is created before they even learn how to count. As childcare becomes more professionalized but wages stay low, the gulf expands between well-off families, who offload care work onto daytime surrogates, and the service workers who absorb the burden, often for poverty wages and at the expense of their own kids.

Achieving real equity means state support for working conditions that allow for healthy parenting and a decent livelihood. Investing in early education benefits everyone involved, whether they are paying, earning, or learning.

The Care Gap and the Wage Gap

Whatever form childcare takes, economic insecurity is toxic to the developing mind. Children who grow up in an impoverished environment without intellectual stimulation tend to enter school already disadvantaged, and they may never catch up. According to the Center for American Progress, “Much of the achievement gap that we see in later grades has its origins in the gap that exists at age 5.”

As early childhood development becomes more important and established, the economic and social stakes of not receiving it are getting higher. Researchers have reevaluated how “early” one should intervene, and public education authorities have sought to further formalize preschool—districts are beginning to introduce curriculum models to track kids toward the standard K–12 system—as a pathway to elementary education.

But it’s an uneven path. Unstable state and federal funding streams are spread thinly across both private and public providers. As a result, according to W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, “you end up with situations where some children get higher quality [care and education] because they get there first.” In other words, only the children of parents who sign up for limited slots on a first-come, first-served basis benefit; the rest scramble for slots in free programs. During a hot enrollment period, “you find parents in Georgia camping out overnight to get a place for their child in a public school pre-K.”

Meanwhile, workers tasked with providing a nurturing and stable environment for other people’s children face constant economic anxiety. Surveys by Berkeley researchers found that over a period of more than two decades of flatlining wages, a childcare labor force that earns “barely more than fast food cooks” often struggles with stress over income instability and “not having enough food for their families.”

Venetta Strickland of North Carolina started working in childcare about thirteen years ago, while looking after her young son with cerebral palsy. He’s now nearing high school graduation, with three siblings coming up behind him. She’s still scraping by on $12.45 an hour from a small daycare center that she says has been tight-fisted about giving raises.

“Just working with kids as a whole is very rewarding,” she says. “But at the end of the day . . . when it’s time to clock out, the real life hits back, and hey . . . how am I going to feed my kids?” She’s managed to move out of her mother’s home, but struggles to keep up with rent for her two-bedroom apartment, and still sometimes leans on her mother to provide her own family’s informal daycare. Meanwhile, she says, student debt looms ahead as she studies for an online education degree. “There’s been many times that I don’t even make it to the next pay day.”

Between her days guiding preschoolers’ first forays into counting and reading, Strickland knows what her daughter does without: the field trips, the carefree playtime, the kind of enrichment the family has briefly glimpsed on the days Strickland’s employer has allowed her to bring her daughter to work. As the educator who takes care of other people’s children for eight or nine hours a day, she worries that her own kids are missing out.

For another preschool teacher, Desiree Gonzales in Albuquerque, her school schedule clashes with her working-mom schedule. The mother of three says she gets by with a state childcare subsidy and the roundabout convenience of enrolling one of her children at the school where she works, so the subsidy essentially goes toward teaching her own toddler (like many working-class single parents, she can only work with the subsidy, otherwise, the teacher would stay home, priced out of daycare herself). But she recently had to give up a new, higher-paying teaching job when she realized that it would not allow her to take a break to fetch her older son from school in the afternoons, like her previous employer had.

The catch-22 of struggling to teach others’ children in order to raise her own eventually led her back to her old job. “I feel like I’m at work too much, and not home enough,” she says, but at the same time, “if you’re not working as much . . . you’re not getting paid as much.”

The financial stress takes a physical toll: as childcare provider Carolyn Carpenter recalled in an essay published by the advocacy coalition Raising California Together, parents sometimes had to drop off sick kids at her daycare, since they couldn’t take time off from work to stay home with them. Carpenter was in the same position: “I also lack paid leave and sick days, and am left to struggle whenever I or my child gets sick . . . we working moms find ourselves on the verge of losing it all.”

Making Care Work Fair Work

Labor activists are becoming more vocal in their demand for fair pay in the childcare sector. The Fight for $15 campaign, a broad community-labor coalition supported by the Service Employees International Union, has branched into organizing childcare workers, including Flakes, to press for $15 an hour as a starting wage, in tandem with similar calls for higher wages for fast-food workers, homecare workers, and others in historically non-unionized, low-wage jobs.

The women’s equality campaign Make it Work recently published an extensive policy proposal, incorporated into a congressional resolution for an overhaul of federal childcare funding. The proposal demands “Guaranteed childcare subsidies for middle- and low-income families with children aged 12 or younger,” with no parent paying over 10 percent of income and no provider earning below $15 an hour.

The Center for American Progress has issued a policy plan outlining a household childcare tax credit that would provide $14,000 per child each year, supplementing a program that would be financed through a sliding-scale family contribution capped at 12 percent of income. This would allow for a $16 hourly base wage plus benefits, or $34,000 per year.

Testifying at a public hearing on the Fight for $15 campaign in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tolanda Barnette talked about being a childcare worker who never made more than $10 an hour over her twelve-year career. While her classroom was a sanctuary, she slept in a shelter because she couldn’t afford a home for her family:

There is something really ugly about being someone who is passionate about caring for children, goes above and beyond to care for children, but not being paid enough, to be able to have enough, to care for my own . . . I want to give them the world. $15 an hour won’t make us rich, but I could finally feel like my family and I are going to be alright.

While it’s unlikely Congress would agree to so dramatically subsidize childcare in the current hostile climate on the Hill, preschool remains one area that draws rare bipartisan interest: forty states have established universal pre-K programs, including Republican strongholds like Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma. Building fair wages into childcare reform may symbolically start braiding together labor and family interests in the policy discussion over the future of care.

Equalizing the working conditions for childcare providers requires a more holistic conception of education. As the field of early childhood development shifts toward higher, more sophisticated standards, workers need tailored professional education programs to lift them into higher-paying positions. But financial hardship and a dearth of specialized training programs leave many early-childhood workers in a career rut.

Another way to advance the workforce is for educators to organize, but collective action is hard to cultivate in a climate of chronic instability. Marcy Whitebook, the researcher who led the Berkeley study, says unionization remains hampered by the early learning sector’s precarious working conditions and by such variation in program sizes and structures. With early childhood services scattered across small community centers, churches, and schools, she says, “The main challenge is the size of the organizations and the turnover—in addition to the overall negative climate for unions.”

Gonzales now campaigns with PEOPLE for the Kids, a community-labor coalition that seeks to link the three pillars of New Mexico’s childcare infrastructure: providers, which are often small, privately run organizations; union and non-union educators and staff; and families. Together, they’re petitioning state lawmakers to fund childcare comprehensively, so workers can earn a decent wage while parents receive subsidies that cover the cost of quality care. Additionally, childcare centers don’t have to squeeze wages or cut hours to keep the lights on. Bridging parents and educators, the campaign seeks to keep legislators from triangulating on childcare funding—resisting the state’s tendency to expand classroom slots but scrimp on teacher wages. Campaigners want it all for their kids—and for those who care for them.

Matthew Aber-Towns, an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers, which is supporting the campaign, says the overarching goal is to ensure “all the stakeholders in the industry are organized and united.” Currently, while childcare center operators struggle to sustain themselves on inadequate funding, he explains, among the staff, “you have the worker voice that’s saying, ‘look, you need quality, and you can see these need to be good jobs.’ . . . [And parents are] saying, ‘We need access and flexible options for early learning.’”

Bringing up a child has evolved from a domestic duty to one of the fastest growing sectors in the education system. Between wanting the best for our kids and demanding fairness for all caregivers, preschool teaches the hard lessons of inequality that politics easily forgets.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.