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Child-Care Pay So Low, Many Workers Qualify for Government Help, Report Says

A new state-by-state analysis of the early-childhood education workforce finds that salaries remain low across the board with 86 percent of early-childhood educators working with infants and toddlers in centers making less than $15 an hour. The report adds that in 2017 more than half of child-care workers reported receiving some form of government assistance. 

The 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index also includes recommendations to improve the field through such policy changes as public funding for early learning akin to the system in place for K-12. 

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"Our system of preparing, supporting, and compensating early educators in the United States renders the almost entirely female workforce struggling to provide for their own families and in many cases to put food on the table," said Marcy Whitebook, one of the co-authors of the index and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, during a conference call with reporters.  

The center released the index Wednesday. It takes a comprehensive look at the demographic makeup of these workers, their salaries, working conditions, and the programs in place to help them, as well as the policies that govern the industry.

The researchers found a considerable pay gap between those who work with infants and toddlers in centers and those who work with three- to five-year-olds. In 2017, the median pay for a child-care worker was $10.72 an hour and $13.94 an hour for a preschool teacher.

Even earning a four-year degree doesn't lead to substantially more money for those who work with the youngest children. Those with a bachelor's degree or higher who work with infants and toddlers earn $13.83 an hour on average compared to $17.86 per hour on average for those who work with children in pre-K.

Racial Disparities in Pay

The researchers also found a racial element to the wage gap. The majority of African-Americans in early-childhood education (52 percent) work with infants and toddlers. The report notes that black early-childhood educators working in child-care centers are more likely to earn less than $15 per hour than all other racial/ethnic groups in the field. This holds true even when controlling for the workers' level of education. Black early-childhood education workers still make $0.78 less per hour than their white counterparts. That's $1,600 less per year for a full-time, full-year worker.

Low salaries among early-childhood educators also lead many in the field to turn to government assistance programs for help. The report notes that between 2014 and 2016 more than half of child-care workers (53 percent) received assistance through the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The index also indicates that 43 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers reported receiving some form of government assistance.

Despite so many workers qualifying for government aid, the researchers did find that child-care worker pay increased between 2015 and 2017 nearly 7 percent, adjusted for inflation. But that bump in pay only amounted to a less than $0.70 increase to the median hourly wage.

The report also notes that most child-care workers in states that have raised the minimum wage have seen an increase in pay.

During that same time period, the researchers found that preschool teacher pay declined in more than half of the states when adjusted for inflation. In 10 states, wages dropped by at least 10 percent.

Since the center released its first index of the early childhood workforce in 2016, the report indicates that most industry reform efforts have focused on improving teachers' qualifications rather than improving workers' compensation.

Paula Gales is a pre-K teacher in North Carolina. She says she works two part-time jobs to help make ends meet, but things will change for her in the upcoming school year.

"In North Carolina, the push for highly qualified [early-childhood education] teachers has not been matched with increased wages for those obtaining bachelor's or master's degrees," said Gales Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

She's leaving early-childhood education after more than 25 years in the field to work as a kindergarten teacher in the fall.

"With my master's degree in education, I will make at least $8,000 to $10,000 more than I did as an early-childhood educator just by teaching one age group higher," she said. 

Graphic by Getty


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