Economy

Why We Pay People Who Care For Children Like Parking Lot Attendants

CREDIT: AP

Kamara Moodie runs a 24-hour daycare center out of her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She’s a single mom supporting three girls. And she just got her first raise in the seven years she’s been a childcare provider.

It’s a 3 percent raise in how much the state pays providers in the Connecticut Care 4 Kids program, the first adjustment in 12 years, but she’s grateful for anything. “This money helps me provide for my family, pay for my mortgage,” she told ThinkProgress. “It pays the bills. I’m living.”

Moodie is part of a workforce that, nationwide, hasn’t seen much income growth. Childcare providers’ wages only grew 1 percent between 1997 and 2013, according to the National Child Care Staffing Study, a new study from the University of California, Berkeley that looks at how these workers have fared over the last quarter century. That doesn’t mean workers saw an actual raise — the increase barely kept up with the rise in the cost of living over that time.

Childcare providers’ wage growth was lower than the growth in wages paid to fast food workers. They were consistently in the bottom second or third percentile in salary rankings, sharing that status with parking lot attendants, laundry workers, fast food employees, and bartenders. Perhaps most strikingly, the people who care for our youngest children earn less than those who care for animals in zoos or homes.

They even earn less than those they should be able to consider peers. People providing early care and education to three- to five-year-olds outside of a school setting earn two thirds of what their peers earn in school-sponsored pre-K, and half of what they earn in kindergarten.

Moodie is going to school to get her associate’s degree in early childhood education, something that’s difficult to balance with the demands of her work and her family. For her struggles, she should be able to command higher wages with a higher level of education. But those who seek out higher degrees still earn less than they would in another field. Pre-k teachers with a bachelor’s degree make just three-quarters of what female college graduates make in the general workforce.

These low wages make it tough to get by on a childcare provider’s income. Moodie relies on Medicaid for her family’s health insurance. “I mean it’s hard, it’s really hard,” she said. Nationwide, nearly half of childcare workers live in families that rely on one or more public programs, compared to a quarter of the overall workforce.

And economic insecurity is rampant. The National Child Care Staffing Study examined one particular state’s early care and education workers. Nearly half were single parents like Moodie. A third of these workers reported using some form of public assistance, including nearly two-thirds of those who are parents. Even those supports don’t alleviate the anxiety. Nearly three-quarters were worried about being able to pay their bills, while half were worried about being able to afford food for their families.

Benefits are rare. A third of the providers in the case study state didn’t have any health insurance from any source. Moodie points to health insurance as something lacking for all workers like her. “We have no pension plan of course, no fringe benefits. We’re just left hanging,” Moodie said. “We should be able to get some kind of benefits.” That doesn’t even include time off; taking a sick day is difficult with families relying on her, and she takes a few days vacation two or three times a year. “Parents don’t really think providers are allowed to be sick,” she explained.

Stagnating wages and scarce benefits have occurred among the childcare workforce even as costs for parents soar. The study finds that average weekly payments doubled between 1997 and 2011. It now costs as much as $28,606 a year to put an infant and four-year-old in a daycare center, more than what the average family spends on rent, food, or even four-year college tuition in 31 states.

But low wages have an impact on providers, which in turn has an impact on the quality of care. It its previous iteration, released in 1989, the National Child Care Staffing Study found that those who provided the best care not only had more education and training, but also got higher wages and benefits and worked in centers that spent a bigger portion of their budgets on personnel. Turnover was rampant, and those who made the lowest wages were twice as likely to leave their jobs.

Higher wages could also bring more respect to the work. “Parents see us home daycare providers as babysitters,” Moodie said. “I am not your babysitter. I teach my children, get them ready for preschool.” Still, she feels undervalued. “We need to be regarded as important people because honestly we’re not.”

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