Child care pros on squaring the circle of low wages and high costs: We need public funding

September 29, 2022 — Early childhood education is in the news every single day, largely because of the huge challenges in child care due to the pandemic. The headlines from across the country and Minnesota often center around how challenging it is for parents to find care for their children because spaces simply don’t exist and care they can find is unaffordable. Another common headline focuses on how little early childhood educators are paid. The piece that seems to be missing is how intricately these two issues are linked. 

On Labor Day, Dan Wuori, who is the senior director of early learning at the Hunt Institute, found exactly the words we’ve been searching for. He tweeted, “As we mark Labor Day, a reminder that the ability of American parents to participate in the workforce is undergirded by the child care industry and subsidized by the unsustainably low wages of its teachers.” 

The child care industry has subsidized families for decades. The current cost model of how we do child care places parents and families on one side and teachers on the other. It’s like a seesaw that we’re continually trying to balance. But the only way to balance it is for one side to put in way more than they are able. In this system, to pay teachers a living wage, families would have to pay much more than they can afford for care. To balance it so families can afford care (barely), teachers have to work for much lower wages, or “subsidize” rates for parents. 

But there’s more to it than just wages. Despite reassurances from the administrators, our teachers feel guilty for using well-deserved paid time off because our staff is operating with no wiggle room. When staff are out for sick days and personal days, we administrators step in to cover. Our administrative work piles up on our desks, waiting for days and weeks until those few moments between classroom shifts. But their guilt is not the most damaging effect. 

Being understaffed means late-night work on grant applications in order to meet the deadlines; open child care slots because there isn’t time to contact families on the waiting list; tasks that further erode our precarious financial position. 

Our staff have four-year degrees and more, and they could make far more money by leaving this field. One might ask then why we continue to work for low wages. The answer is that we love working in early childhood education, but the other very important answer is that it won’t solve the problem. 

Parents and families rightfully wonder “Why is child care so expensive?” The reality is that it’s expensive because it costs a lot to provide good, high-quality care. Child care providers are not collecting vast sums of money and hoarding it for themselves while not paying their teachers. It’s quite the opposite. They are making every last cent stretch as far as they can. Sometimes by not paying themselves. The simple fact is that we cannot sustain child care the way it exists now and both pay teachers the wages they deserve and keep care affordable for families. It is not possible.

So what will solve the problem? Public funding. The only way to make child care affordable for families and pay teachers the wages they deserve is to publicly fund child care. A lot of our families are university students and research staff. Most of them do not receive any child care assistance, so the rates they pay make up almost our entire revenue. We do our best to ease their burden through a sliding fee scale, which is not standard among child care centers,  but we are not able to slide it very far. The difference in the weekly rate between families of four who earn less than $36,000 and those who earn over $51,000 is only about $30 for full time care. When family budgets are tight, every dollar discounted matters, but the high cost of child care has left families making tough choices, like piecing together part-time child care with odd parent work schedules. 

Public funding would bridge the gap between what families can afford and the costs to run a quality program that can pay teachers what they deserve. We strongly support the recommendation that for child care to be “affordable” for a family, that family should not pay more than 7% of their income for child care. Right now, many of our families pay 30-40% of their income for child care which is hard to even imagine.

We have been trying to balance this teeter totter for way too long. Believe us when we tell you that we are a resourceful crew and we’ve tried everything possible to make it work. But it doesn’t. Children from infancy to 5 deserve better, families deserve better, and those of us that work in child care deserve better.

We all deserve a system in which child care is affordable and accessible, and we have an overabundance of people who want to work in child care because it is treated as a career and paid accordingly. Every one of us will benefit when we start treating child care as the public good that it is.

Tracie Myers has been the director of Community Child Care Center in St. Paul since 2006 and has been working in child care since 1997.

Katy Knudtson has been the assistant director of Community Child Care Center in St. Paul since 2015, having worked as a younger preschool teacher from 2009 to 2015.

Stacey Flanigan taught preschool at Community Child Care Center in St. Paul for nine years before becoming the education coordinator in 2012.

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