New Report Documents Shamefully Low Pay for Childcare Workers

A voluminous new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment offers a wealth of data on the compensation and education levels of the early childhood workforce, trends and changes in early childhood educators’ and caregivers’ compensation and education over time, and the degree to which early childhood caregivers and educators experience economic insecurity. A highly informative report and reference for anyone working on early childhood education and workforce issues.

You should just read the entire thing (even though it’s long–it’s worth it!) But a few key takeaways from the tons of information here:

  • The early childhood field is highly fragmented. This is a “duh” to anyone working on early childhood issues, but looking at the data in this report really drives home just how diverse the sector, and its workforce, is.
  • Publicly funded programs are only a segment of the pie. Much of the recent policy attention to early childhood education has focused on improving access and quality in publicly funded pre-k and Head Start programs. These efforts are critical to improve school readiness for disadvantaged children and improve the return on current public spending, but they only touch a segment of the larger $70 billion sector.
  • For-profit small business make up a major segment of the early childhood sector. In a major survey of center-based childcare providers that serves as a key data source for this report, independent for-profit centers (as distinct from for-profit chains) accounted for 27 percent of the sample, trailing only “independent, non-profit or run by government agency” in the percentage of centers represented. The key role of smaller for-profits in the sector raises a variety of challenges for efforts to improve quality, because these providers tend to pay their staff less than for-profit or government-run programs, and many smaller for-profits also have limited internal capacity to support or engage in quality improvement.
  • While there’s diversity in early childhood educators’ education and training, pretty much everyone is underpaid relative to comparable workers. At the low end of the spectrum, early childhood workers with a high school degree or less make less than people who take care of pets. At the higher end, even bachelor’s degreed pre-k teachers working in public school or Head Start settings make less than their similarly prepared peers teaching in grades K-12.
  • Despite efforts to improve the qualifications of early childhood educators, on average the percentage of center-based childcare teachers with at least an AA degree has not increased since 1990. This overall trend masks changes within segments of the early childhood sector however. Most strikingly, Head Start has significantly increased the percentage of teachers with AA and BA degrees and decreased the percentage with no degree, due in large part to mandates in federal legislation.
  • Real wages for most early childhood workers have not increased over the past 16 years. While the average wages of pre-k teachers have risen 15 percent in real terms, average wages for childcare workers haven’t budged.
  • Many early childhood workers receive some form of public assistance (such as Medicaid, WIC, food stamps, or housing subsidies) due to the low level of compensation.

Reading this data, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that providing the kinds of early care and learning environments that prepare children for success in school and life is going to require paying early childhood workers more. Aside from the issue of teacher credentials, getting good people–the kind of people you want to leave your child with–to want to work in early education, to stay in the jobs over time, and to do so at scale, requires paying livable wages. Figuring out how to do that, though, is challenging.

The economics of early childhood pose a conundrum: When many settings rely exclusively on parent payments, workers’ wages are capped by what parents are able to pay. And other research documents that the current costs of childcare already stretch the budgets of many families. Public funds (from federal, state, and local governments) actually account for a slightly larger share of early childhood funding than parent payments–but many of these funding streams also provide too little funding per-child to support increased worker compensation. At current funding levels, increasing per-child funding means reducing the numbers of children served.

The report’s authors offer a variety of recommendations to address the issue, but they essentially boil down to this: Increase public funding to increase the compensation of early childhood workers. Yet recent election results suggest that austerity is likely to be the governing mode of state and federal budgets (which account for the majority of early childhood funding) in at least the near term.

The bigger challenge to such approaches, though, is our societal failure to acknowledge that caring for and raising young children is highly labor-intensive, valuable, but costly work. Until very recently, the labor costs of caring for children were rendered invisible because children were cared for by people–primarily women–who were excluded from full economic and civic participation in society. As women and other oppressed groups in the modern West have gained rights and participation in the economy over the past century, the costs of caring for children have become increasingly visible in measurable economic terms–either through the actual costs that families pay for childcare or through foregone wages of mothers who choose to stay home with their children. But we do not want to confront those costs.

Our society has tended to view these now measurable costs as the responsibility of parents. But the reality is that many of the benefits of providing good care for children accrue to people other than parents: both the children themselves and the broader society. At the same time, the costs of caring for young children are highly concentrated in the first few years of  a child’s life, which often tend, given the timing of women’s most fertile childbearing years, to coincide with the earlier and lower earning stages of parents’ careers (this is in part why google and facebook are now paying for egg freezing).  These two issues–externalities of quality childcare and timing issues in parents’ ability to pay–mean that a system that relies on parents to pay for childcare will lead to economically inefficient underinvestment–through no fault of the parents themselves! Public subsidies for childcare and preschool exist in part to correct these ineffiencies. But, thanks to the long history of “free” childcare provision by oppressed populations, and the fact that subsidized programs tend to be targeted to low-income kids, our public policies are highly reluctant to value that care at its full cost. So, the difference has been made up, in part, but the continued exploitation of a subset of women who make their living caring for other women’s children.

Policymakers say that we cannot afford to spend more public resources on caring for our children. That is bovine dookey. There’s a deep irony to current debates about the future of the economy: On the one hand, we have hand-wringing about our inability to cope with the costs of caring for the coming wave of our elderly. I would broaden this to include a more general assertion that we are, as a society, unable to pay the costs of caring for people who need to be cared for–both elderly and young children. (Note that there are considerable similarities in the economic and demographic profile of childcare workers and lower-skilled elder care workers). On the other hand, there’s increasing speculation and anxiety about a “post-work” future, when technological advances will generate a surplus of labor and their simply won’t be enough jobs to go around. But both things cannot be true. Or, rather, they can only be true if our political and economic leaders make bad choices.  A world in which there are neither enough jobs to go around nor sufficient resources to provide the highly human capital intensive care needed by both children and the elderly would be the results of political failure, rather than an inescapable fate.

I rarely go off on tangents of this sort, because the primary focus of my work is on figuring out how to improve how our existing programs and policies to better serve children–and how to do that within the constraints of our current political system. Don’t get me wrong–I think there is a tremendous amount that we could be doing better for kids within the constraints of existing programs and resources, and even more that we could be doing better with marginal resource increases. (See here for some ideas)

But I frequently become deeply frustrated by how our society has failed either to acknowledge the real costs and value of caring for children or to accept any degree of communal responsibility for meeting our children’s needs. This failure is both morally troubling and the underlying source of many of the distortions  that complicate pragmatic efforts to improve quality in early care and education.