Recently, an analysis by the Center for Early Childhood Innovation found that one in three childcare workers is experiencing food insecurity. There’s no way that one of our most important professions, in one of the richest countries in the world, should leave that many of its workers hungry.
But I shouldn’t be shocked, because I was one of them.
I worked as a childcare director earning just about the minimum wage of $8.50 per hour. At that wage, I had to rely on food stamps so that I wouldn’t have to work a second job while I was 8 months pregnant with twins. Before my pregnancy, my second job was a pediatric home health aide for children with disabilities. My husband also worked full-time, but it still wasn’t enough to afford to save enough money to put both of our twins in a childcare program.
Child care for just one infant in Texas averages $9,324 a year. That’s more than in-state tuition for a four-year public college. And for families with two kids, the typical Texan would have to spend 27.6% of their income on child care. There was no way I could double down on that type of money.
There I was providing essential child care to other families, while I wasn’t paid enough to put my own kids in a care program and feed them. So I made the decision to stay home with my children and start an in-home family childcare program. On top of the struggle of opening up a new business while healing from my recent birth, I still struggled to make ends meet and often found myself applying for food stamps to cover the $600 monthly food bill for my small family of four.
I was not an anomaly. Many of the families that I served also relied on food stamps and other forms of public assistance. Several times a day I would feed other people’s children and ensure their bellies were full, while I was stretching leftovers for my own lunch.
The average wage of a child care worker in the United States is $12.24 per hour, or $25,000 per year. For a family of four, the federal poverty rate is $25,570. That means your average child care worker, with a family of four, is living under the poverty line.
We have established many times over that our child care workers are the engines that support a working, functioning, thriving economy. Yet, we are not willing to pay them a living wage. Essentially, we treat them as chattel.
We’re not far off from the slave labor roots of America’s child care system. Enslaved Black women were forced to care for and feed white infants at the expense of their own. After emancipation, many of these women continued to provide domestic labor for next to nothing. And when the New Deal came along to offer new labor protections, powerful lobbies ensured that domestic workers – a profession that today is 93% women and 45% Black, Latino or Asian – were excluded.
A few months ago, a group that we are part of, Community Change’s Childcare Changemakers, hosted an event where the providers we organize with told their stories of how systemic racism persists in our profession and offered solutions for change.
In this discussion, I mentioned that most of my rural Texas community relies on childcare subsidies, so my takeaway was just $2-3 per child. That’s one-fifth of what the local teenager would get for babysitting these days. But I am five-fifths of a professional business owner providing quality services and I deserve a living wage.
The fact of the matter is that tending to children has been looked down upon as unworthy women’s work. The proof is in the more than 300,000 child care providers going hungry in the United States.
On one hand, we, as a society, say every child deserves high-quality early childhood education. We have layers of criteria that educate, license, and determine what goes into this high-quality education. We regularly inspect, question, and require education from our early child care educators. We make them run through hoops of regulation to care for our babies.
And as providers, we do it. We do it because we love our children. We love helping to shape these young minds, caring for our babies, and providing a safe, healthy place for them to grow. We enjoy being an integral member of our community and our village. We want to ensure the next generation gets the foundation they need to start kindergarten off right and go on to be great citizens.
But we are repaid by being sent into poverty.
Our federal government can provide a living wage for all care workers and we won’t stop organizing, together with parents, until it happens. Together, especially if providers and parents work as one, we can change this system so that it truly works for everyone.
We have been saying that child care workers are the workforce behind the workforce for a long time now. When we refuse childcare workers the foundations they need to to survive, let alone thrive, we are saying that workers don’t matter as long as corporations and the ultra-wealthy keep their pockets full.
Instead, we can have a country where no child care provider goes hungry and the economy works for all of us. As organizers with Childcare Changemakers, we are dedicated to co-creating that world.