DALLAS-FORT WORTH — The recent recognition by industry leaders such as Child Care Associates in Fort Worth, Texas of the need to overhaul and innovate in their approach to the fragmented childcare system with its struggling workforce may set a precedent for childcare workers across the country struggling with similar issues.
The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows there are more than 438,000 childcare workers in the country. The mean hourly wage for these workers is $12.40, with a mean annual wage of $25,790.
Prior to the pandemic, childcare workers averaged $10.15 an hour, which was an increase of three percent since 2017. This is roughly one-third of the pay their counterparts earn while teaching preschool in an independent school district.
For underserved communities, those who have the most impact during a child’s critical early years are not fairly compensated.
In a child’s first years of life, 700 to 1,000 new neurological connections are formed every second, which stimulate a child’s development and create pathways for learning for the rest of their lives. Poverty influences this process by bringing a host of stressors and hardships into a child’s life and influencing relationships with caregivers and others in a child’s social network.
In Texas, the child poverty rate is 12th in the nation, at 19.2 percent. In comparison, the child poverty rate in Florida is 17.7 percent, and in California, the rate is 15.6 percent, place it at 24th in the nation.
Unfortunately, many disadvantaged children are not in an early childhood setting, so being able to work with those who are enrolled is especially vital.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the benefits that a strong early learning system has on the economy are far-reaching, laying “a solid foundation on which to build lifelong education, lives and careers.”
Teachers in childcare with bachelor’s degrees earn a meager $27,000 per year. Many early childhood professionals are being asked to mold children in a way they are not prepared to do for themselves as they rely on subsidies and face the same stressors of poverty as those they are charged to influence.
COVID-19 brought about additional challenges that caused many childcare workers to flee the industry. With fast food establishments and other businesses upping their starting salaries and even offering starting bonuses, there was an immediate strain on the childcare workforce.
Wages are the strongest indicator of teacher turnover, which creates an inconsistency that has a tremendously negative impact on a child’s learning and school readiness, further widening the gap for children in poverty. As it stands, less than half of poor children in the U.S. are considered school-ready by age five.
The lack of qualified teachers to fill these positions also puts childcare centers in a position where they are not able to enroll to full capacity, thus resulting in fewer spots available for working parents. This can put a strain on other industries and increase the overall poverty rate for those unable to work due to a lack of childcare. The direst consequences are to parents who are forced to leave their children in unsafe environments due to the lack of adequate care.
While the pandemic has shined a spotlight on the profession, with federal funding available through the Child Care Relief Fund, for a total of $2.45 billion across the country, it will merely serve as a band-aid for the long-suffering industry.
Most early learning programs that have received funding have the option to initiate a staff bonus structure or offer a salary increase, but many are using the funding to make up for lost income or extra expenses they’ve incurred during the pandemic. Many owners and directors proceed cautiously when deciding on a pay increase, as they will have to determine how to sustain increased payroll once the additional funding runs dry.
Serving children and families living in poverty is linked to my own experience. More than three decades ago, as a teen mother in West Dallas living in generational poverty, I was not able to pay for childcare but needed to work.
I was offered a job as a preschool teacher in a small, privately owned childcare center where, as an employee, my child could attend for free. That was the beginning of my career as an early childhood professional.
Because of its location, the childcare facility primarily served economically disadvantaged children, and my starting pay was $4.25 per hour, which at the time was minimum wage. Attempting to transition out of poverty, I worked to receive training, take college courses that were offered free by the childcare facility, and learn all I could about the profession.
Working a 10-hour day from open to close with a two-hour break in between —in poor working conditions with no insurance, no paid time off, and little room for growth— after two years, my salary increased to $4.50 per hour.
This is the fate of thousands of childcare workers across the nation.
The solution to this problem is not easy and can be expensive. This is a historic issue exaggerated by the pandemic. However, the payoff will produce long-lasting benefits.
It is essential to focus attention and create a systems approach to professionalizing the early childhood industry and strengthening the teacher pool.
Ultimately, creating change in this arena can impact the overall poverty rate of the early childhood workforce as well as the children they serve by allowing their parents to return to work.
Children deserve the best options possible early on for the best outcomes later on in life.
Samantha Moya is a 30-year veteran in the early childhood industry. She has served as a teacher, center director, coach, and senior-level executive for many local non-profits and is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.