The Plight of Child Care Workers

One would think that someone who dedicates their life to serving some of the world’s most vulnerable people would be entitled to a living wage and great social respect. But as a recent ThinkProgress article highlights, those that care for the nation’s children are among the most poorly paid and economically unstable workers in the country.

According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, the median wage for child care workers is $10.31. That’s not just a small figure on its own; it’s also very low compared to what these workers could make elsewhere. Even when compared to other workers with the same gender, race, educational attainment, age, geography, and a number of other factors, EPI found that child care providers make 23 percent less. And even those figures are likely underestimating the problem, given that any provider who is self employed and working out of her own home — providers who are likely to earn even less than those in, say, centers — aren’t counted.

“Despite the crucial nature of their work, child care workers’ job quality does not seem to be valued in today’s economy,” the report notes. “They are among the country’s lowest-paid workers, and seldom receive job-based benefits such as health insurance and pensions.”

Adding insult to injury, these low wages mean that many child care workers — more than 95 percent of whom are women, and many of them parents — struggle to afford care for their own children. Barnette has experienced this conundrum herself. While she was able to get a child care subsidy for her two eldest children, her youngest son, who is now five, was put on a waiting list at three months old and only taken off last February, when he got a slot in a pre-K program. In the intervening time, Barnette had to quit her job. “I couldn’t work because I couldn’t afford the child care”, she said.

It’s a widespread problem among a workforce that cares for others’ children. Preschool teachers have to spend between 17 and 66 percent of their income to get care for their own infants; in 32 states and D.C., it eats up a third or more of their earnings.

This is despite the fact that, aside from the obvious importance of their work, the services of childcare workers are in higher demand than ever, owing to the prevalence of dual-income households where both parents must work full-time to get by (as well as the growth in single-parent households wherein the sole guardian must work a lot, too).

This trend says a lot about the plight of the average American family, too, as they must devote more resources to finding reliable child care than on food, shelter, or even secondary education. Meager-paying yet highly demanding jobs, combined with a lack of a reliable safety net, means parents must shell out a lot of money to caregivers, who in turn ultimately receive little of that money themselves (rather, it goes to their bosses or contractors).

Given the big structural problems at work, it is no surprise that EPI’s solution requires some major changes.

For the author of EPI’s analysis, Elise Gould, this conundrum — unaffordable care combined with poverty wages — means that something big has to change. “The dual sides of it…makes it so right for some kind of government solution”, she said. One way would be to expand access to subsidies, which currently fail to reach many eligible families, or tax credits to help families cover the cost. Another would be to not just enact universal preschool, as President Obama has called for, but to expand it into younger ages as well. The country did, after all, once have universal child care.

These solutions would cost money. But inaction, Gould argues, does too. “Not providing accessible and affordable child care is a cost as well”, she said. It can push parents, particularly mothers, out of the workforce. It also fails to invest in children’s development.

But any fix will have to be enough to not just reduce the burden on parents, but increase wages for providers. Barnette isn’t waiting around. She’s joined the Fight for 15 movement to demand a $15 minimum wage and the ability to organize. “I’m a professional, I’m not just a babysitter”, she said. “I deserve 15 and a union”.

I think cultural attitudes need to change as well. Whether it is helping to raise children or cleaning up after us, those who do clearly necessary but often thankless work need to be socially and economically valued accordingly. These jobs may not be glamourous, but that is besides the point: they are crucial to society and in clearly in demand — so why shouldn’t they command greater respect and commensurate compensation? Why shouldn’t a person willing to do such important work be rewarded with at least living wage? It is absurd that those tasked with caring for our next generation should be forced to live in poverty and social marginalization.

What are your thoughts?

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