Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages

Today, New America hosts the release of Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Early Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study, by Marcy Whitebook, Deborah Phillips, and Carollee Howes. The Staffing Study first shined a light on the fact that many early care and education teachers earn poverty-level wages a quarter of a century ago. This new report provides an update on the state of the child care workforce and offers new evidence of their economic insecurity.

What’s changed? When it comes to earnings for child care teachers, there has been little improvement. While parent fees for child care have doubled since 1997, many teachers and other child care workers still make poverty-level wages, requiring nearly half of them to rely on public supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program; federal food stamps; or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

We know that the teachers who work with young children matter a lot. This graph below really tells the story: Birth to about age 5 is when there is the most brain development. Early care and education teachers should be--and in many places already are--setting the foundation for future learning, developing essential knowledge, as well as helping to build the skills, habits, and mindsets that children need to succeed later in school and flourish in life.


The birth-to-5 years are also when teachers earn the least, even if they are required to have degrees. Take pre-K teachers, for instance. Head Start and some state pre-K programs have begun requiring pre-K teachers to obtain degrees (typically with a specialization in early childhood education) just like kindergarten teachers. Yet these pre-K teachers, for the most part, still do not make nearly the same wages.


Because the requirement for degrees has not necessarily been tied to increased compensation and better benefits, once they have their degree pre-K teachers have to make tough choices about whether to leave for an elementary school where they will earn more. And who can blame them? According to Worthy Work, nearly half of the child care teaching staff who were surveyed said they worried about being able to feed their families; about two-thirds said they worried about paying for housing costs. More than 40 percent take advantage of EITC, and about 1 in 5 receive food stamps.

Whitebook, Phillips, and Howes call for a “comprehensive reassessment of the nation’s early care and education policies. They call on the federal government and states to prioritize “livable, equitable, and dependable wages for early care and education teachers.” And they point to the Department of Defense early childhood program as one example for a way forward.

We here at New America’s Early Education Initiative agree and offer some thoughts of our own for helping to improve the child care workforce in our Beyond Subprime Learning report. Check out that report for more. We're also holding an event today to review Worthy Work's findings with the authors and discuss the policy needs for the field. Click here to read the report, and here to join us for the webcast of the event, live at 10 AM."


Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts to conduct policy research and analysis and put forth new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.