Economy

The People Who Do One Of The Most Vital Jobs Only Earn Poverty Wages

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A preschool teacher in Seattle

Tolanda Barnette has spent the whole day caring for other people’s children, only to come home to a homeless shelter and worry about how to provide for her own three kids.

She currently makes $12 an hour at a daycare center, a job she’s had at different centers for 13 years. “I love children,” she said. “There is nothing more pleasing to be around than kids… I’ve always had a love for kids since I was a child.”

That passion brought her into this line of work, but it hasn’t made it any easier when the low pay presented challenges for her own children. She lost her housing voucher last summer when she had to leave her apartment of seven and a half years and wasn’t able to secure a new one within 90 days. Her family bounced around, staying with different friends and family until they were able to get admitted to a shelter this past June.

Other bills present challenges as well. Sometimes she struggles to make her car payment. When her food stamps run out before the end of the month, she is faced with choosing between buying her family food and paying for the daily medication she needs to treat her depression.

She may be most upset about what her children miss out on. “My kids have missed a lot — book fairs, field trips, pictures,” she said. Her daughter took school pictures last week, but Barnette could afford to buy any. “That hurt me,” she said. At a recent book fair, her youngest soon could only buy one book.

“Ends don’t meet when you’re making a small amount of money,” she said. “They just end.”

Barnette is one of the millions of people who go to work everyday and care for the country’s youngest citizens. As more and more children live in families where all the adults hold jobs — both parents work in nearly half of two-parent households, and the vast majority of single parents work — the work they do has become even more vital. Yet their pay is outrageously low.

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.

Child care workers in other centers struggle even more: care consumes more than half of their income in 21 states and D.C. Yet the Department of Health and Human Services classifies spending anything more than 10 percent of a family’s income on child care as unaffordable.

Their wages are low enough that many child care workers live in poverty. Nearly 15 percent live below the poverty line, and they are nearly 6 percentage points more likely to earn below that threshold than similar workers in other jobs. Meanwhile, a third live below twice the poverty line — or about $48,000 for a two-parent family with two kids — and they are more than 10 percentage points more likely to fall into this category.

According to a budget developed by EPI that takes into account each region’s cost of living — how much families need to afford housing, food, transportation, and other necessities where they live — child care workers frequently don’t make enough to get by in their neighborhoods. The share of preschool workers who can’t afford their area’s living standards ranges from less than 10 percent in places like rural Kentucky and Tennessee to more than 90 percent in Boston and Olympia, Washington.

Child care providers in other settings struggle even more. In the majority of areas, more than 90 percent can’t meet basic expenses.

They are also unlikely to get benefits. Just 15 percent of child care providers get health insurance from their employers; they’re 27 percentage points less likely than their peers in other occupations.

What may be perplexing, however, is that care isn’t just out of reach for providers making low wages; it’s out of reach for many other families as well. The share of income that families have to devote to paying for child care has risen more than 70 percent since the mid-1980s. Today, the cost is more than what a typical family spends on rent, food, or even, in many states, what it costs to send a child to public college.

At Barnette’s current center, a parent recently had to pull her child because she had a second kid and couldn’t afford to send both at the same time. So she quit her job to stay home with them. “They’re struggling as well,” she noted of the parents. “It’s not fair on either end, as a parent having to pay for care as well as being a child care provider.”

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.”