We Need To Find A Way To Pay Child Care Workers More Than Poverty Wages

by Wendy Wisner
Dave Clark Digital Photo / Shutterstock

Yesterday, one of the sweet teachers at my son’s pre-K asked me if I knew anyone in the neighborhood who might like a part-time job next school year. It would be a three-hour a day stint at the pre-K, serving lunch to the kids and winding them down for their nap. “It would be great for a stay-at-home parent who wants to get involved in the community and get some extra cash along the way,” she said. And I agreed.

But then I asked her what the pay was, and my jaw dropped right to floor. “It’s $10 an hour,” she said, and I could tell she hesitated a little before telling me. $10 an hour?! In our neighborhood, a suburban town right outside New York City, it costs $10 to pay for a couple hours of parking. It costs more than that to take the kids out for pizza. Making a yearly, daily commitment to care for a room full of rowdy 4-year-olds at $10 an hour sounded pretty much akin to volunteering (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Of course, the teacher who shared the information with me meant well, and it certainly isn’t her fault that these are the kinds of wages early child care workers make in our area and in our country. In a town like mine, with an astronomical cost of living, $10 an hour is pretty much peanuts. Perhaps, in other towns, it might amount to something more as far as cost of living, but chances are that folks would make even less in those areas.

Let’s be real, with the federal minimum wage still at a paltry $7.50 per hour, $10 per hour amounts to living in poverty for pretty much anyone, no matter where they live.

The fact of the matter is that we have a huge, unconscionable problem in our country with how we compensate our child care workers. Of all the jobs that I’ve had in my life, child care work has been the hardest, most grueling, and most physically and emotionally taxing work I’ve done. Whether it was babysitting, tutoring, or working at a preschool, I poured all my energy, resources, and love into those kids and ended my days exhausted to the bone.

And yet, I was paid like crap. I made much more money typing resumes into a computer, which took almost no effort, and was painfully unrewarding. I even made more money working as a library clerk, also almost effortless.

And I am most definitely not alone. According to a recent article on NPR about child care workers, the national average pay is less than $10 per hour, and almost half of all childcare workers receive public assistance, like food stamps or Medicaid.

Now, think about this for a second. These are the people who we need (!) to provide a loving environment and safe care for our babies and children while we are separated from them. Why on earth should they live a life of struggle, wondering if their next paycheck will cover rent or if they will be able to provide a healthy meal for their own family? Imagine the kind of stress that might carry into their jobs. It is not fair for anyone involved.

It is this kind of stress that creates a very high turnover rate for child care workers (about 30%, according to this 2012 article). And it’s also why so many well-intentioned, talented people with the ability to truly enrich our children’s lives just aren’t getting into the child care field in the first place, or are leaving it as quickly as possible, not because they do not enjoy their jobs, but because they can’t afford to stay.

“We’re seeing a high turnover of [child care] teachers,” Michele Rivest, executive director of the North Carolina Child Care Coalition, tells NPR. “We’re seeing the lowest enrollment in our community college programs for early education. And I think it’s all attributable to low wages.”

Now, I know that many of us parents are feeling this from another angle as well — the fact that child care costs so damn much in the first place. Many of us simply can’t afford it, and others find that a ridiculously high percentage of their paychecks goes to child care, making the whole thing an atrocious money pit.

Here’s the thing: It seriously doesn’t have to be this way, folks.

In other industrialized countries, like the Netherlands, for example, child care is subsidized and supported by the government, making it affordable for parents and assuring that child care workers are compensated fairly. Clearly, this is not something our current administration thinks is a priority, but there are politicians out there who do see this as something we ought to take a stab at here in America. If you feel the same way, I urge you to make your voice heard, far and wide.

Our child care workers (and our children) deserve so much better than this.