"Because Women's Work is Always Undervalued:" Why Child Care Workers are Some of The Lowest Paid Professionals in America

BlogHer Original Post

I don't have children, and I do not plan to have any. Yet, in my mind, child care and early childhood education is the most important issue any nation faces. In the United States, we pay a lot of lip service to the importance of child care and early education, recognizing the field as critical to parents' ability to go to work, as a way to prepare young children for school, and as a safe place for older kids to go after school while their parents are at work. In theory, we acknowledge that child care is essential to our economy both directly (as a field of business, it generates jobs and money that buys supplies from other businesses) and indirectly (by allowing parents to work, child care props up an enormous portion of the economy). We realize that children who attend high quality child care programs are less likely to repeat a grade in school, drop out, become teen mothers, or be arrested. What American society refuses to do is properly invest in child care, leading to a dysfunctional industry in which skilled providers are poorly paid, burn out and turn over is absurdly high, and families cannot access the care they need. Of course, this disproportionately affects women, both as consumers (women who want to or need to work) and as providers (98% of early childhood program employees are female).

For the past 10 years, I worked on child care and public policy. The first thing I learned is that anyone who attempts to analyze the industry from a logical economic supply-and-demand model is doomed to get the wrong answers. Megan McArdle at the Atlantic Monthly controversially (and faslely) claims that child care is not a skilled labor. In fact, child care center licensing standards in many states require the lead teacher to hold a BA in early childhood education or be in the process of obtaining a degree. She correctly understands that staffing a center costs a lot of money, and when you add in overhead, the cost of offering high quality child care is more than most parents can afford. (Fight Crime, Invest in Kids reports that the cost of quality infant care is more than tuition at a public university in every single state!) Meaning: the laws of supply and demand do not apply to child care. Many parents in American do not have a choice of whether to work or stay home. Hence the demand for care is high, but the fixed cost of care means that parents cannot afford the supply. This is what economists call a market failure.

In most market failures, subsidies are applied to correct the problem. McArdle rejects subsidies for child care because she says that would drive up the wages of educators of older children. Her fundamental misunderstanding of the child care field as completely unskilled leads to this false dichotomy. (Emily Yoffe wrote an excellent article in Salon about how much skill grossly underpaid child care workers require.) Child care workers are already teachers, often possessing the same educational and training credentials as those who teach elementary school. They deserve the same rate of pay as other teachers. The reality is that subsidies will attract more skilled professionals to the early childhood field, allow more families to send their kids to quality early childhood programs, and cost society significantly less in the long run. (The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has done numerous studies on the economic benefits of quality early childhood care and education and concluded that there is as much as $17 in future benefits to be derived from every dollar invested in early childhood programs. Kathy G. at The G Spot summarizes numerous economic studies on the benefits of a variety of early childhood care and education programs.)

So, given the market failure and obvious benefits of quality child care and early education, why isn't investing in young children a priority in the US? Why have I not hear one presidential candidate mention the struggle that working parents face in finding high quality, affordable child care? Laura at 11D said it best:

Also, babysitters are poorly paid, because people think it's easy, because women's work is always undervalued, and because society doesn't want to pay for work that they still think should be freely given. Sometimes you can't understand economics without looking at the politics.

And here's where feminism really fits in. Child care is women's work. (Married, middle-class) Moms are expected to stay home and do the work for free, even as we live in a world in which single parents are common, and even married middle-class families can't make ends meet without both parents working. We see this lack of appreciation for educating young children mirrored in how the child care workforce is composed and paid. A whopping 98% of child care workers are women, and the average salary $17,630. Yoffe points out, "The advocacy group Center for the Child Care Workforce points out that only a handful of the more than 800 occupations surveyed by the BLS have lower wages—these include parking lot attendants and dishwashers." Personally, I also believe that race is an issue as well: more than one-third of child care workers are women of color. If US social policy has treated women's work as a whole as worthless, we have generally treated women of color even worse. This is clearly reflected in the poverty wages we deal out to people who are shaping our children's futures.

By standing up for child care, we are saying that caring and education children - something done nearly exclusively by women and traditionally done either without compensation or with extremely low pay because it is "women's work" - is valuable. Child care (whether done by moms, aunts, grandparents, or paid workers) should not be a female ghetto, populated by poorly paid and disrespected women. We need to stop paying lip service to its importance and start paying dollars.

Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants and about positive social change at Just Cause. Her first book, "Off the Beaten (Subway) Track: New York City's Best Unusual Attractions," is hitting bookshelves in July.

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