September 21st is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. This awareness day is important because statistics show that women-dominated fields, and occupations dominated by women of color more specifically, tend to pay lower wages. Early childhood educators are on the list of occupations that are dominated by women and pay lower than average wages. They also have one of the most important jobs in our society.
As a Black woman, mother, and social justice advocate, this is concerning to me. Being the daughter and granddaughter of school teachers I have witnessed the passion and commitment those who are entrusted with our children put into their profession. I have also experienced the financial sacrifices that their jobs require of them and their families. And I think that’s wrong. All educators — including child care providers and early educators — should be paid a living wage.
Now that I am the mother of a one and a half year old, I am able to see firsthand just how important educators and childcare workers are to not only families, but our society as a whole.
My son was born in the middle of the pandemic. When it was time for me to return from maternity leave, I had zero child care options. Our family had recently moved to a new state and although my husband and I put our son on daycare lists as soon as we moved, all the centers were completely full. I felt hopeless in a new city without family close by — I struggled to work from home and balance taking care of our child simultaneously. After months of hoping a childcare center would accept him and countless interviews with potential babysitters, someone finally came through. However, this arrangement wasn’t ideal — I had to pay half of my salary for part-time child care.
Shortly after my son’s first birthday, we were able to get him into a daycare and it has changed my life. There will always be unpredictable circumstances with children. But having a reliable child care center where I can take him has made life so much more manageable.
When I learned that the median pay in the United States for child care workers like the kind women who care for my son was $13.22 per hour, I was devastated. In North Carolina, where I live, 99 percent of the early education workforce are women, and 51 percent are women of color. Three of the four teachers in my son’s class are Black women, the other is a Latina woman. They all deserve a living wage. I owe my son’s teachers so much: My peace of mind, my ability to work, my son’s happiness. I’m sure other parents must feel the same way. Why can’t we pay childcare workers what we owe them?
The first couple of weeks were difficult for my son. Like many children, he was apprehensive about starting daycare. The workers reassured me that this was normal and that he would soon feel comfortable in his class. Thankfully, they were right! Now my son happily walks into his class. He is making friends, learning how to feed himself, talking more, and proudly brings artwork home, all while I’m able to work and not have to worry about whether he is being adequately taken care of.
As the daughter of schoolteachers, I’m grateful for the union that constantly fought for the teachers in their district to receive more pay, and ensured that their wages were not stagnant. We didn’t have to worry about the necessities, like being able to afford food or health care. Sadly this isn’t the case for many early childhood educators. According to a 2019 Child Care Services Association report, in North Carolina, 21 percent of early childhood education teaching staff and 16 percent of family child care providers lacked health care coverage and 39 percent needed some sort of public assistance like Medicaid for their children, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase food.
These are the folks, overwhelmingly women, and disproportionately women of color who do some of the most important work in the country. The early years of childhood are so important for our childrens’ futures. Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time a child is ready to start kindergarten at age five. There’s no reason the folks who teach our youngest shouldn’t be paid at least as much as educators who work in other grades when their impact on our children is just as significant.
This Black Women’s Equal Pay Day I would like to encourage all parents to join the Childcare Changemakers in the fight for more funding for child care and better pay for workers. On October 3-7, they’ll be having a Child Care Voters Week of Action to show that this issue is top of mind for people in every corner of the country.