Serving Children in Poverty While Living in Poverty

image via woodleywonderworks on flickr

Have you ever tried to guide half a dozen two-year-olds through discussion of a book? Or managed a classroom of four-year-olds each doing an independent activity? During law school, I worked at the Georgetown Law Early Care Center under the mistaken impression that working with small children would provide a nice break from long hours reading legal cases. I quickly learned that I misjudged the energy and effort required to care for young children. I can only imagine how much harder my job would have been if I was working full-time earning $10 an hour, unable to afford health insurance, and managing a second job in an effort to support a family.

But these conditions are, unfortunately, all too common for our country’s early childhood educators. Last week the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley released a groundbreaking report focused on the challenging conditions facing the U.S. early childhood workforce. The results show that even though generations of psychologists, neuroscientists, and economists have outlined the crucial role of early childhood education to child development, academic success, and the U.S. economy, the early childhood workforce continues to live in poverty and under extreme stress. Nearly half of early childhood education workers receive some type of government assistance and their median wage is $9.77, less than the hourly fee paid to a high school babysitter in many communities.

The fact that young children are under the care of adults subject to chronic stress is a critical problem that has tremendous consequences for young children and U.S. society at-large. The foundation for lifelong literacy, attention, and self-regulation is built during the years from birth to age five. Young children’s brains are influenced dramatically by the quality of their relationships with those caring for them. In fact, research has determined that early educators’ skills are the most important factor determining the quality of children’s early learning experiences.

Many believe that the best way to set students up for life long success is to ensure all children have access to two years of high-quality preschool. While this change would dramatically increase long-term outcomes for American children, it is impossible to achieve this without transforming the early childcare workforce and the conditions under which they toil. States must increase workplace supports and compensation. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment report aims to be a yearly report, so here’s hoping the next index will show dramatic improvements in the right direction.