Bad News for Working Parents: Your Nanny Is Underpaid

On average, child care workers haven’t seen a pay increase since Fran Drescher was herding kids on network television.

(Photo: William Vanderson/Getty Images)

Nov 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

After her divorce, Teri Smith rethought her teaching career. The North Carolina woman was in her 40s, and as a single parent of two, she couldn’t afford to live on a pre-K teacher’s salary. So she was forced to make a change.

Now a child care center director, Smith is charged with the care of about 175 kids under age 5—which keeps her in touch with early education and pays a bit more.

But the 45 child care workers she employs still struggle to make ends meet. Every year, there are teachers at her school who receive food stamps, lose their homes to foreclosure, and live in public-assisted housing, Smith said. Which is why when her two daughters decided to pursue careers in child care, she told them to reconsider.

“I told both of them, ‘OK honey, look at my paycheck—this is all you’re going to make,’”she said.

Mother may know best, but that doesn’t mean her kids listened: One of Smith’s daughters works eight hours a day at a child care center and moonlights as a waitress. She makes more money serving food, said Smith.

There are nearly a million child care workers in America who take care of babies and toddlers age 5 and under at schools, religious organizations, day cares, and private homes. As consensus on the importance of early education grows and as more families need dual incomes to make ends meet, the demand for these jobs is clear. But salaries for these jobs haven’t improved in more than 15 years. This means the country has reached a “tipping point,” said Marcy Whitebook, author of a report released this week from UC-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

The average hourly wage for child care workers in 2013 was $10.33, according to the report. That’s only 1 percent higher than the wages child care workers were paid in 1997, making it one of the lowest-paying occupations going today.

“We don’t define early childhood services as a public good like we do K through 12 education,” Whitebook said. “I think people don’t understand how important adults being attentive and responsive during this period is.”

Although pre-K teachers on average make slightly more than caregivers at about $15 an hour, they are both underpaid, in large part because they’re occupations thought of as “women’s work” or labeled as unskilled labor, said Whitebook. People often discredit the educational value of preschool teachers because the value of the teaching can be subtle while the work can seem simple; it's not calculus, but finger painting develops independence and imagination, and playtime helps kids socialize with peers and develop ethical boundaries. Research has repeatedly shown that early-education teachers who are highly trained, on par with K-12 teachers, are much more effective at their jobs.

So great strides have been made at a national level to increase qualification standards for early educators. The federal Head Start program, for example, which provides early education, health, and nutrition services to low-income families, set and achieved a goal of having at least half of all its teachers have four-year degrees by 2013.

But still, “too many of the thousands of early childhood teachers who have risen to the challenge of increasing their education to meet the rising expectations of what high-quality early care and education can accomplish are still earning unlivable wages,” the Berkeley report states.

In one study of child care and preschool workers, 73 percent reported being worried about paying their monthly bills, and nearly half said they were worried about their family having enough to eat.

Being strapped for cash is not only a burden to the caregiver, but this strain can spill over into the classroom and negatively affect students. Unsupportive or insensitive teachers can result in overstressed, anxious, and sickness-prone young children. It turns out trauma at a young age can actually change the “chemistry of a child’s genetic blueprint” and can lead to long-term impairments in the child’s mental and physical health, according to the Berkeley study.

So what’s the solution? In a word: money.

As of now, child care centers and pre-Ks across the country run off a combination of federal and state funds, grants, and (in large part) contributions from parents whose kids are enrolled there. So Whitebook and her fellow researchers are calling for “a focused and comprehensive reassessment of the nation’s early care and education policies” to try to secure a dedicated source of public funding for child care workers and establish regional salary guidelines for early educators that encourage seniority and training.

At least child care workers and pre-K teachers know the fight for fair pay isn’t unprecedented.

“It is worth recognizing that it took kindergarten teachers nearly 100 years to be considered the equals of other teachers in public school systems,” the report states.