Child Care Teachers: Underpaid and Underappreciated

Blog Post
Nov. 13, 2015

It’s no secret that child care in the United States is extremely expensive. In a majority of states infant care costs exceed the average cost of in-state college tuition. The average annual cost of care for an infant ranges from a low of about $5,500 in Alabama to a high of almost $22,000 in Washington, D.C.

Since child care costs are so high, you might assume that teachers of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers receive a decent salary for their work. After all, those thousands of dollars have to be going somewhere, right? Well, you’d be wrong. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) details new findings on the pay of child care workers and the numbers paint a sobering picture. Despite the important nature of their work, child care teachers are among the country’s lowest-paid workers with a median hourly wage of just $10.31, about 39 percent below the $17.00 median wage of other occupations. Not only do these teachers, over 95 percent of whom are women, receive very low pay, but only 15 percent receive health insurance from their job compared with 50 percent of workers in other occupations. And because the costs of child care are so high and their pay is so low, many of these teachers can’t afford child care for their own children.

The EPI report isn’t the first to shed light on the poor working conditions of the nation’s child care workforce. Last year, the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) published a report with similar findings. Specifically, the report found that child care teachers earn less than adults who take care of animals and only slightly more than fast food cooks. The report also found that child care teachers are seldom rewarded for educational attainment. While the share of Head Start teachers with an associate or bachelor’s degree has increased by over 60 percent in the last 17 years these increases in education have not been rewarded with meaningful salary increases.

Some might argue that the low salaries of child care teachers are due to the fact that many of these workers still lack a college degree. Perhaps the low pay is simply a product of the free market. To shed light on this question, the EPI report controlled for the differences in factors such as educational attainment and gender. After accounting for these differences, the report found that child care teachers still have hourly wages that are 23 percent lower than those of similarly situated workers in other occupations. The EPI report refers to this as the “wage penalty” that comes with working in child care.

If most child care teachers are paid so poorly, then why does child care remain so expensive? Part of the answer has to do with child-to-staff ratios. High-quality child care facilities tend to have low child-to-staff ratios, especially for the youngest children who require intensive services like feeding and diaper-changing. While raising child-to-staff ratios could decrease child care costs, it would come at the cost of program quality. Another factor that drives up child care costs is the increasing cost of rent and property prices across the nation, along with the cost of complying with various governmental regulations. These regulations,however, are typically related to important health and safety standards.

There’s an inherent tension between wanting to pay less for child care while also wanting to improve the pay of child care teachers. So what are some possible policy solutions that might help solve this dilemma? In the short-term, the CSCCE recommends including compensation policies as one criterion used in assessing the quality of child care programs through state Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). They also recommend that eventual Head Start reauthorization include a request for increased federal funding so that teaching staff salaries better align with the increased qualifications required for Head Start educators.

A long-term solution to this problem will require a more sweeping proposal that identifies a sustainable source of public funding to upgrade the compensation of child care teachers. In July, the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced a resolution calling for high-quality, affordable child care while providing a living wage for child care staff. The resolution does not offer details on how such a program would be paid for. The Make It Work Campaign, an advocacy group focused on family issues, has put forward a more detailed policy proposal that would guarantee child care assistance to low- and middle-income families while setting an hourly wage for child care teachers of at least $15 - the same hourly wage being demanded by a growing number of workers from various industries. While admitting that fully implementing this proposal would come with a price tag of $168 billion per year, the Campaign insists that it could be fully paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes and other tax reforms affecting only the wealthiest taxpayers.

But even at $15 per hour, the compensation provided doesn’t really match the duties of the job we really need these adults to do: teachers working with our youngest children set the foundation for all future learning, building the key knowledge and skills children need to succeed later in school and flourish in life. The quality of interactions between teachers and children is especially important when it comes to early language and social development. As put forth in the recent Transforming the Workforce report from the Institute of Medicine, all educators working with children beginning at birth should have a set of core competencies, and the primary teacher responsible for children in a classroom should have a bachelor’s degree with specialization in early childhood education. To meet this goal and retain good teachers, $10.31 an hour is certainly not enough.

Whatever specific policy proposal is eventually adopted, it’s imperative that it include a method for increasing the pay of child care teachers and other staff members so that highly-qualified individuals can afford to stay in the field. These teachers do the important early work that is crucial for helping young children develop into successful students and productive adults. In the richest nation in the world those who care for and teach our youngest children shouldn’t be paid so little that they often struggle to afford basic living expenses.

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