Hunger Costs America Well Over $160 Billion a Year

November 30, 2015

Hunger costs our country $160 billion a year, Bread for the World reports. That’s more than one and a half times what the federal government spent on all domestic food assistance programs last fiscal year.

And the estimate is very conservative because it reflects only what the analysts could glean from academic studies of the impacts of hunger and food insecurity on health and related costs.

These include health care, of course, but also lost work time due to personal illness or the need to care for a sick family member.

The report, though not the headline figure also includes other indirect costs, i.e., for special education in public schools and dropouts after students had to be absent too much and/or repeat a grade.

Folding these in increases the hunger cost to nearly $179 billion. And as the online intro to the report says, that’s still only partial because we don’t have the research to quantify all relevant costs.

It cites the costs of forgoing prescribed medications — or skipping doses — so as to have more money for food. Also missing from the estimates, it says, are various other health-related “byproducts” of hunger.

These include overweight and obesity, some forms of cancer, deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, calcium and the familiar vitamins, potentially preventable returns to hospitals and mental health problems, though some of these are factored in.

The new study borrows from and updates a similar study conducted in 2010. One would expect high hunger-related costs then, what with so many people out of work and perilously short on money — a problem even for those with temporarily-boosted SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

As you know, the official unemployment rate has dropped. So has the estimate of what it would be if all working-age jobless adults were counted.

But hunger-related health costs have continued to rise. This is especially notable because the prior “hunger bill” included the costs of charitable feeding programs, while the Bread for the World study didn’t.

I’m never comfortable with putting a price tag on the harms deprivation causes. But costs do make for good headlines and may grab the attention of policymakers, especially when they imply potential savings.

It’s still disturbing to see costs attributed to severe, possibly chronic health problems — and to suicide, the third largest item in the latest cost estimate.

How can we put a dollar figure on the suffering of people who did away with themselves or on the grief, guilt and other often devastating emotions of survivors? Or the pangs of accommodating holes in the fabric of their everyday lives?

The leaders of Bread for the World undoubtedly have similar reservations. The organization identifies itself as a “collective Christian voice,” advocating for a world without hunger.

Helping us recognize the shockingly high health costs of hunger and malnutrition may stir us to advocacy and give us ammunition. It may perhaps even change some of our policymakers’ perspectives.

But ensuring that everyone in this country has enough healthful food to eat every day is fundamentally a moral call. We all feel this, I think, whether we affiliate with a religious faith or not.

Yet we’ve got about 48 million people here who at the very least may go hungry — and roughly 17.2 million who at least sometimes do.

Apologies for climbing onto a soapbox. Thinking about hunger, especially when many of us are still recovering from the food excesses of Thanksgiving — and perhaps the shopping aftermath — gets me going.

So to end on a somewhat different note, this is also the time of year when we with the wherewithal often give to the charities of our choice. Our gifts can’t eliminate hunger. We need sufficiently funded government programs for that.

But organizations that feed poor and near-poor people and advocate on their behalf deserve our support. Off the soapbox and onto other issues.

Thankful I Live in DC

November 25, 2015

Like many of you, I suppose, I try to take some time before Thanksgiving Day to focus on what I have to be thankful for. In my case, a lot, even on this Thanksgiving, when I’ll have no one ministering to the turkey — my late husband Jesse’s traditional (and favorite) holiday task.

One thing I’m thankful for and recur to often as I browse policies that affect low-income people is the fact that I live in the District of Columbia.

As followers know, I gripe about policy choices our mayors and the DC Council make. Sometimes more than gripe.

I’m constantly reminded, however, of how relatively progressive the major choices generally are — and of how even current debates occur within a relatively progressive framework. A few examples.

Jobless Workers

The Council seems poised to increase unemployment insurance benefits for at least some jobless workers, as well as to enable some to get them for longer

A bill cosponsored by a majority of members would, among other things, increase the maximum weekly benefit — long stuck at $359 — to $430 and then adjust it annually so that it didn’t again lose purchasing power.

It would also enable recipients to work part time without losing as much of their benefits as they do now — another increase of sorts.

Meanwhile, nine states have cut UI benefits by reducing the maximum time jobless workers can receive them to fewer than the customary 26 weeks. Two states will now cut the lifeline at 12 weeks when their unemployment rates drop to 5-5.5%.

And five states have chosen not to ask for waivers of the highly-restrictive SNAP (food stamp program) eligibility maximum for able-bodied workers without dependents. One of them — Kansas — is among the states that cut eligibility weeks for UI benefits.

So ABAWDs who are jobless for as little as 16 weeks will have neither cash income nor a cash equivalent to feed themselves — unless they can get into a job training program.

Unlikely, since states don’t have to provide any training slots for them. And most don’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has again reported.

The District has not only preserved the waiver it’s entitled to. It’s done other things to extend SNAP benefits to as many residents as possible — and to make them as sufficient as seems possible, even to the extent of committing local funds to boost the minimal minimum.

Affordable Health Care

The District swiftly embraced the opportunities in the Affordable Care Act — both to expand its Medicaid program and to establish an online marketplace so that residents with incomes above the new maximum could purchase health insurance, in many cases subsidized.

And it promoted enrollment in a variety of ways — through advertising, partnerships with the local soccer team and largest drug store chain and funding for 35 divers organizations to support trained “assisters,” who help residents understand the ACA and navigate their way to a sign-up.

At the same time, it retained the locally-funded Healthcare Alliance so that low-income residents barred from Medicaid and the exchange — mainly undocumented immigrants — could get affordable health care too.

As a result, the District’s already low uninsured rate dropped to 5.3% last year — bested only by Massachusetts, which provided the model for the ACA.

Meanwhile, 20 states still refused to expand their Medicaid programs. And 13 of them passed laws to hobble the federally-funded navigators — one of the two types of “assisters” the District provides.

We see the results in the same Census health insurance report I linked to above. Highest uninsured rates in the non-expansion states — led by Texas, with a rate well over three times the District’s.

Not surprisingly, when Texas, among others, excludes all childless adults from its Medicaid program and covers only parents with incomes no greater than 15% of the federal poverty line — about $3,013 for a parent with two kids.

Family Planning Rights

The District would — if it could — use its own tax revenues to ensure that low-income women who live here can choose to end a pregnancy when they believe that’s best, a right they supposedly have under the Constitution.

The District can’t because Congress exercised its prerogative to meddle in the local budget in ways it can’t — and wouldn’t dare to — if the District were a state like any other.

Meanwhile, 24 states have cleverly (they think) found a way around the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which made the Constitutional right operative.

They’re using their taxpayer dollars to defend laws that effectively deny the right by requiring clinics that provide abortions to meet wholly unnecessary standards — all very costly and at least two sometimes absolutely impossible to comply with.

Texas will defend its unusually expansive rules before the Supreme Court, using tax dollars women have perforce contributed. The governor makes no bones about the intent of the rules.

“The ideal world, ” he says, “is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure that they are as rare as possible.” So much for the alleged concern for women’s health and safety.

Well-off women will, of course, still have abortions. They’ll travel to communities with clinics that have managed to meet the standards — or to states that haven’t enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, so-called to produce the appropriate acronym, i.e., TRAP.

They’ll perhaps have abortions in hospitals, as well-off women with compassionate doctors sometimes did before Roe.

Meanwhile, hundreds of desperate women have already tried to-it-yourself abortions — at genuine risk to their health and safety. Who knows how many more have borne children they didn’t want and can’t care for? How many have instead done away with themselves?

Got my juices flowing here, when I should be thinking about turkey juices. But I am truly thankful that I’ve settled in the District. And I’m thankful for Jesse, without whom I probably wouldn’t have. But that’s another story.


Could DC Inclusionary Zoning Benefit Neediest Residents?

November 23, 2015

I’d never though much about the District of Columbia’s inclusionary zoning program. For one thing, it hardly made a dent in the affordable housing shortage during the first four years after the District completed final program rules.

The program’s generating more units now — 600 open and roughly 1,120 more on the way, I’ve heard. Still not a large impact in a city that’s lost roughly 31,880 units that rented for $1,000 or less in 2002.

More importantly, given my interests, such affordable housing as the program has produced isn’t affordable for the lowest-income residents — those with incomes no greater than 30% of the median for the D.C. metro area.

That’s a feature of the law, not a bug. IZ, by design, benefits households that are technically low-income, according to the definitions used by public agencies and analysts, but not really low-income at all.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority of units thus far produced are priced for households at 80% of the area median — currently $78,624 for a three-person family or nearly four times the federal poverty line.

A brief by a local coalition nevertheless makes a good case for IZ as a program that can benefit the lowest-income residents. It also recommends some rule changes the Zoning Commission could make.

How the IZ Program Works

The IZ program offers private-sector developers an incentive to include some affordable units in new or significantly renovated and expanded multi-family housing. Instead of directly subsidizing their projects, it permits them to pack in more units than zoning would otherwise allow, thus making the projects potentially more profitable.

In exchange, developers must set aside a modest percent of the residential floor for units that will rent or sell at prices those technically low-income households can afford.

The IZ units must remain affordable, according to the same income standards for as long as the building remains residential. Only recently has any other District housing program preserved affordability beyond a date certain.

Why IZ Doesn’t Mandate Units Affordable for Extremely Low-Income Residents

The story here is fairly simple. Rents affordable for the lowest-income (technically extremely low-income) households don’t cover the costs of operating and maintaining a building. Owners need ongoing subsidies in the form of vouchers to compensate for the shortfall.

That, of course, requires continuous funding. And the money would have to come out of the District’s budget because federal policymakers aren’t going to plow enough extra into so-called project-based vouchers to support a growing number of affordable units — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Even the President’s proposed budget would merely cover the costs of vouchers already in use. This steady state funding seems to date back to at least Fiscal Year 2010 — except when the voucher program, like all programs dependent on annual appropriations got whacked by the across-the-board cuts in 2013.

We do need increasing investments in project-based vouchers. Better, the argument goes, to pair them with the financial support the shored-up Housing Production Trust Fund provides. By law, 40% of the funds spent must help finance units affordable for ELI households.

How IZ Could Benefit Extremely Low-Income Households

The very structure of IZ means its not inclusionary for ELI households. Yet it can benefit them, supporters say.

The notion here is that moderate-income families will move to the new units they can, in theory, afford. Those units will attract them because they’re more conveniently located, spiffier, close to high-performing schools and the like.

That will free up cheaper units they’re occupying now and/or make them less likely to rent or buy them when they decide to move. It’s surely the case that a goodly number live in those units now.

About a third of rental units District ELI households could have afforded roughly four years ago were occupied by higher-income households, according to an in-depth Urban Institute study.

This is one, though far from the only reason that 64% of ELI households spent at least half their income for rent in 2013. They’re disadvantaged in the competition for the low-cost units, the Institute says, because landlords tend to prefer renters with “greater financial stability,” e.g., steady, well-paying jobs, strong credit records.

IZ arguably reduces the competition by luring those renters to housing that affordable for them, but not their lower-income counterparts.

Not THE Answer, But an Answer

What I think we see here is that no one program can solve the acute and growing affordable housing problems in the District — or in many other communities. IZ shows instead how affordable housing programs are — or should be — thought of together.

As with some of our household repairs and more ambitious projects, we often need more than one tool to get the job done.

I didn’t see how IZ could help do the job for the District’s lowest-income residents. But I’m persuaded now, though I also see how the Zoning Commission could make the tool more effective.

The coalition has half a dozen recommendations, many of which would shift the program toward less well-off households — and even ultimately the ELI. Seems like a blueprint for reform to me.

Free Legal Services a Powerful Tool for Preventing Homelessness

November 19, 2015

This is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week. I don’t suppose anyone who lives in a major metro area needs a special week to become aware of homeless people.

Here in the District of Columbia, we see them on the streets every day. And we know (or should) that we see only a relative few of the thousands who don’t have a home of their own.

The District has taken a leaf out of the strategic plan produced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — the goal of ending homelessness by 2020.

Or rather, it’s adopted and expanded the goal, since the nationwide plan merely “set[s] a path” for ending homelessness among adults who don’t have children in their care. The District instead aims to have homelessness be “rare, brief, and non-recurring” for all residents.

Though the goal is broader, the meaning of ending homelessness is the same. The plans recognize that some people will, at some point, have no place to live except a shelter. But optimally, they’ll be re-housed swiftly. And a relative few will need re-housing again.

Making homelessness rare and nonrecurring implies prevention. Significantly increasing the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income residents — especially the very lowest-income — is a big part of that.

But the District has other preventive resources too. Its plan refers to emergency rental assistance, for example — one-time cash equivalent aid for certain types of people who’ve fallen behind on their rent or will if they can’t move to a cheaper place.

Beyond that, its plan focuses on several other groups at especially high risk of immediate homelessness. It envisions “prioritizing housing resources” to individuals whose mental health and/or substance abuse problems put them at greatest risk.

And it refers to plans that will help people who haven’t had to cope with housing before or for quite awhile, i.e., youth who are reaching the maximum age for foster care and people who’ll soon be released from jail, prison or the youth equivalent thereof.

Another form of assistance can prevent homelessness — free legal aid for individuals and families facing eviction or impermissible rent increases that could pave the way.

It also prevents them from having to leave their homes, with no place to go because landlords have so egregiously neglected repairs. And let’s not forget help in securing public benefits that can help pay rent.

The District has an impressive number of nonprofits that low-income residents at risk of homelessness for such reasons can turn to. And private law firms provide substantial pro bono services, both directly to individuals and as partners with nonprofits.

It’s still the case that many low-income residents stand before a judge alone and unprepared. Judges are not only aware of this, but deeply concerned.

Last year, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Appeals testified that he and his colleagues view “the growing number of litigants who are forced to seek justice without benefit of counsel” as “the principal barrier to ensuring equal access to justice.”

This is an old story. And it’s hardly unique to the District. The Legal Services Corporation, which awards grants to nonprofits that provide free legal aid, has lost federal funding — at least in real dollars — since 1981.

And restrictions Congress has imposed on what grantees can do has limited their effectiveness, prompting some nonprofits, including the D.C. Legal Aid Society to forgo the funds.

The recession has shrunk funding for nonprofit legal services too. States cut their share of funding to balance their budgets with shrunken tax revenues.

At the same time, Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts — another source of funding for free legal services — plummeted as banks cut their interest rates in response to the Federal Reserve’s near-zero lending rate. Doubtful the recovery has spread to IOLTA, since the Fed hasn’t yet changed its policy.

We don’t, so far as I know, have current data on what LCS has termed “the justice gap.” A study it conducted about 10 years ago indicated that fewer than one in five low-income people with legal problems of a non-criminal sort had any assistance from a lawyer.

LCS-funded programs themselves turned away an estimated two-thirds of people who sought help with housing problems — the second most common type of help requested.

A District-specific report issued in 2009 warned of increasing recession-related needs for legal aid, including a rash of foreclosures. At the same time, legal services programs here had lost, on average, 25% of their funding, not counting a recent cut the District had made.

LCS funding is up in the air. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a $10 million increase — hardly enough to restore prior cuts. The full House has voted to slash the Corporation’s funding by $75 million.

The outcome will have an impact on the Neighborhood Legal Services Program — one of the District’s major sources of free legal assistance in housing cases. Local funding for District programs has inched up over the last five years. But it’s still only about $5 million — not all of it, for good and proper reasons, for services that can prevent homelessness.

One understands why strategic plans to end homelessness don’t mention free professional legal services — and thus why they’re not included in related budget proposals.

The collaborating agencies — and in the District’s case, community organizations that have a role in housing placements — don’t want to alienate landlords, since progress toward ending homelessness hinges in part on what they choose to do (and not).

Nor, one supposes, do the agencies cotton to the notion of acknowledging that the nonprofits and pro bono partners that challenge them are preventing — or foreshortening — homelessness.

But we who aren’t so constrained can do so — and advocate for them, as we should even if homelessness were ended.

Why Child Care Costs So Much

November 16, 2015

My recent post on childcare worker wages teed up, but didn’t explore an apparent paradox. While the workers’ wages are typically very low, costs of having a child cared for are formidably high. While these affect all families with kids who need care, they’re especially problematic for low-income families.

They obviously take a relatively bigger bite out of the budgets of low-income families who pay them. But they may also shrink those budgets because a parent decides that she (yes, usually a she) has no choice but to drop out of the workforce — or work less — so she can do the child caring herself.

So it’s worth asking, I think, why child care costs so much and whether public policies have — or could have — an influence, for good or ill.

One of the researchers on the team that assessed the public benefits costs of childcare worker wages suggests that the growth of the for-profit childcare industry might explain it. Spokespersons for a nonprofit that represents childcare centers beg to differ.

They cite stricter caregiver-to-child ratios, which state licensing rules set, more use of labor-intensive infant care and “fluctuating” rates for the reimbursements providers receive when they care for low-income children with subsidies.

This last, I take it, means reimbursements that don’t actually cover the difference between what the children’s parents pay and what providers must spend to cover their costs, with something left over, unless they’re nonprofits by choice.

Gillian White at The Atlantic explores the childcare center perspective by focusing on the owner of a center in Detroit.

The owner employs three lead teachers for nineteen children, some of whom are virtually newborns, some old enough to be spending part of their days in school.

She pays her staff about $9 an hour — even less than the median the Economic Policy Institute reports. But, she says, once she’s paid them, plus rent, utilities and materials, there isn’t much left over.

In some types of businesses, employers hold down labor costs by increasing productivity. They automate tasks, for example, so as to get more output per worker. Well, it’s hard to imagine automating diapering, wiping tears away or working with young children on educational activities.

And as both the center owner and the EPI analysts say, simply boosting the caregiver-child ratio would conflict with the aim of providing high-quality care.

What then could make child care less costly, assuming the owner’s balance sheet is more or less typical?

She sees childcare services as an area where government could do more to both relieve the cost burden on families and, one gathers, on centers like hers, since White’s summary refers specifically to their having the resources to pay higher wages.

The owner cites universal pre-K and income-based subsidies as possibilities. Expanding both would make child care more affordable for low-income families — the former, in fact, free for at least part of the time they need it.

Neither, however, so far as I can see, would make it easier for childcare providers to pay higher wages unless the subsidies, plus the fees families must pay cover higher operating costs.

Reimbursements rates differ not only among states, but within states, depending on various factors, e.g., the age of the child, the type of care, certain quality measures. Generally speaking, the federal government recommends 75% of current market rates, i.e., what providers charge families without subsidies.

Only one state set its reimbursements rates this high last year, though more than half did in 2001, the National Women’s Law Center reports. Some explicitly set their percents lower. Others that adopted the 75% standard hadn’t adjusted their rates — in some cases, for a goodly number of years.

Some states have compensated for this squeeze by increasing the percent of income that poor and near-poor families must pay. That, of course, further squeezes budgets that can barely — if at all — cover other basic living costs.

Co-pays notwithstanding, families may have subsidies, but a hard time finding providers who’ll care for their children. The Center for American Progress reports significant drops in the portion of subsidized children cared for in programs operated by two large, multi-state chains. The head of another chain says that unqualified providers have emerged to fill the care gap.

In short, we have a well-intentioned system that’s not working as it should because, as EPI has said, “high-quality child care is expensive,” and our policymakers won’t pay for it, though some seem far more willing than others.

Nothing unique about this. Surely not among our anti-poverty programs. But given the returns on investment, we as a country surely ought to do better.


Lawsuit Seeks More Federal Spending to Help Supply Nonprofit Feeding Programs

November 12, 2015

Bread for the City, one of the District of Columbia’s largest nonprofit sources of food and services for poor and near-poor residents, has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It contends that the agency has failed to spend as much on TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) as the current Farm Bill requires. So it’s not receiving all the non-perishables it could put in the grocery bags it distributes as it would if USDA complied with the law.

If true, at least 60,000 free food providers nationwide — pantries, dining rooms and home-delivered equivalents — could have less than Congress intended. They’d have been shy the food equivalent of about $303 million last fiscal year, judging from USDA’s account of its state-by-state distribution.

The relevant legislation is beyond my capacity to parse. As a legal expert explained it, the alleged under-spending involves two identical provisions — one in the current Farm Bill and one in the former Farm Bill, which it amended.

Basically, he said, each adds $250 million to a base that’s annually adjusted for food price increases, as reflected in the Thrifty Food Plan, which USDA uses to set SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The current bill then adds a further increase that ratchets down from $50 million last fiscal year to $40 million for the current budget year, then further down through 2018.

The lawsuit contends that USDA should have spent $602 million on food purchases last year. USDA, however, interprets the law to have authorized only $327 million — this apparently because it sees a single applicable provision where the legal expert (and Bread’s lawyers) see two.

Even that’s a boost from the roughly $265.8 million authorized for Fiscal Year 2013. But the boost the lawsuit claims Congress authorized is obviously much larger. A substantial boost would not be unprecedented, however.

Congress, I’m told, often increases TEFAP funding when it cuts funding for SNAP, it did in the new Farm Bill, which reduced benefits for an expected 850,000 or so households.

The notion, it seems, is to partly compensate for the fact that SNAP cuts cause more poor and near-poor people to seek food from nonprofit providers — and to cause more to seek it more often.

Feeding America reported more frequent visits to the feeding programs its food bank network helps supply — partly with foods it gets from TEFAP — even before Congress cut SNAP benefits. And a large increase in people served too.

Bread for the City’s experience indicates that the trend continues. During the last fiscal year, its pantry served 11-12% more low-income households, a spokesperson told me. At the same time, the dollar value of commodities from TEFAP has dropped markedly, she said. And, of course, food costs are rising.

As a result, Bread has to rely more on what it gets from private donors to purchase what it distributes — three day’s worth of groceries per month for all low-income residents who apply and have equipment at home to fix meals.

It hasn’t turned any away or reduced the amount it distributes, as some feeding programs have. Nor has it compromised its high nutrition standards for what goes into the grocery bags.

But we see here again an instance of the cost-shifting I’ve spoken of before — a linchpin of new House Speaker Ryan’s explicit justification for large-scale cuts in safety net programs.

As Congress under-funds federal food assistance programs, private-sector organizations — both nonprofits and their donors — do their best to fill “the meal gap,” as Feeding America calls it. But there’s only so much they can do.

Two years ago, filling the gap, i.e., providing every food insecure household in the country with enough extra money to have no imminent risk of hunger, would have cost an additional $24.2 billion, Feeding America reports.

No way the private sector could come up with that much more. And the cost of filling the gap would actually be larger because the Census survey that USDA uses for its food (in)security reports doesn’t include individuals and families who are homeless.

The percent of eligible District residents who receive SNAP benefits is extraordinarily high. Yet more than 41,300 housed households — an average of roughly one in seven — suffered from food insecurity during the three-year period including 2014.

The Food Research and Action Center, which uses a roughly equivalent measure and a larger survey sample, reports somewhat more than one in six for 2014 alone.

These figures provide a perspective on the challenges the District’s nonprofit food assistance network faces, though, as I’ve suggested, only partial, since we’ve got hungry homeless people too.

The challenges are, of course, not unique. In Mississippi, for example, the latest three-year average food insecurity rate is 22% and FRAC’s latest food hardship rate even higher.

The court order Bread’s lawsuit seeks wouldn’t make these challenges manageable. And I’m not prepared to predict the outcome — or even comment on the validity of the claim.

But it does seem that TEFAP, like other parts of our safety net, could do more to relieve hunger and malnutrition if federal spending better reflected need.



Childcare Workers Underpaid, While Families Face High Care Costs

November 9, 2015

A recent blitz of social media communications about how little childcare workers get paid. The engine behind them is Fight for 15 —  a campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage, originally by and for fast food workers, backed by SEIU (the Service Employees International Union).

Childcare workers joined last March, but they’ve become more vocal — or more precisely, had their voices channeled — only in the last month or so, as a lead up to the Fight for 15 strike on Veterans Day.

The Economic Policy Institute, which has strong organized labor ties, published a report last week showing, from various perspectives, how relatively low childcare workers’ wages are — and predictable consequences.

The report raises larger issues. Some details on the wages first, then a segue into a couple of those.

The median wage for childcare workers is $10.31 an hour — 39.3% less than for all other workers. This, in fact, may understate the difference because the median doesn’t include childcare workers who have no official employer but themselves.

What’s more telling is the pay gap for workers who’ve got at least some college education, as nearly 61% of childcare workers do.

Those with less than a four-year degree get paid a median of $4.88 an hour less than their counterparts in other occupations. For those with a bachelors degree, the per-hour median is $10.78 (44.8%) less.

The pay gap doesn’t simply reflect other demographic differences commonly linked to wage rates, e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, age. The “child care penalty,” as EPI calls it, remains when they’re factored in.

Not surprisingly, childcare workers have a higher poverty rate than all other workers combined — 14.7%, as compared to 6.7%.

The “penalty” doubles for childcare workers with incomes at or below 200% of the official poverty line — a commonly used measure because the line reflects the Census Bureau’s unrealistically low poverty thresholds.

EPI turns to its family budget calculator. The maps its report includes show that the median childcare worker wage falls short of what a single person, living alone needs for basic living expenses in virtually every community in the country.

One of those basic living costs, though not for the single person, is child care, of course. Center-based care for either an infant or a four-year-old costs far more than what the typical childcare worker can afford.

Such care for an infant in the District of Columbia would eat up 89.7% of the childcare worker’s wage — and only 17% less for a four-year-old.

What this means, of course, is no center-based child care unless heavily subsidized — and not only in the District. It often isn’t, especially for parents whose incomes put them above the extremely low cut-offs for states’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs.

The end result for a childcare worker can be no earned income because she’s got to quit her job, as one featured in a ThinkProgress story did when her youngest was put on a subsidy waiting list.

The subsidy did come through. It’s a piece of one of those larger issues — the fact that we taxpayers subsidize employers that pay very low wages because workers perforce turn to public benefits.

A study put hard numbers on this cost-shift in the fast food sector several years ago. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, including several from the fast food team, have done the same for childcare workers.

Of those who worked, at least part-time and for at least somewhat over half the year, 46% received benefits from at least one of five “public support” programs — Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), TANF and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Costs of these supports totaled, on average, $2.4 billion a year — about 55% of it for Medicaid and CHIP, since healthcare costs are disproportionately high. But average yearly costs of the EITC (presumably the refundable part) and SNAP totaled more than $1 billion.

“Child care workers’ job quality does not seem to be highly valued in today’s economy,” EPI remarks. Somewhat of an understatement when we consider not only their typically low pay, but the notably few with employer-sponsored benefits, e.g., health insurance.

This too seems a piece of a larger issue. Anne Marie Slaughter argues that we don’t value caregiving. She’s referring to a “workplace culture” that discourages or denies time off for family responsibilities — and to public policies that have thus far done little about this.

But it also applies to wages for professionals in what Professor Cheryl Carleton refers to as “the caring industry,” e.g., teachers, nurses, home health aides.” The fact that they’re historically — and still predominately — “female occupations” goes far to explain this.

And probably wages for childcare workers too, since all but a small fraction are women. But we do, in a way, value their work. Otherwise, parents would just park their kids any old place.

So why do we have childcare workers who’ve got to campaign for $15 an hour — less than 200% of the federal poverty line for a three-person family, assuming (as we shouldn’t) full-time, year round work?

The issue here is somewhat different than for fast food workers. Not that they don’t deserve a decent wage too. But most of the skills their work requires are gained on the job — not skills they bring with them from postsecondary education, specialized training or prior experience.

And fast food restaurant owners claim that they’ve got to control labor costs to keep prices low because they’ll otherwise lose customers. Not letting them off the hook, mind you, but customers do balk at price increases. And owners seem not to have a profit margin they can whittle down much — not, at least, if they’re franchisees of the major chains.

By contrast, childcare costs are dauntingly high — and rising. Professor Deborah Phillips, who worked on the Berkeley study, says “we’ve no idea” where the money is going, since obviously not to wages. Perhaps to other costs, as spokespersons for childcare centers say.

Regardless, we’ve got two big problems — unaffordable child care and a great many childcare workers who can’t afford basic living costs, child care included.

We can’t look to the private market to solve either, I think. As EPI concludes, we’ll need public policies.

And we should have them because they’d serve vital public interests—supporting and suitably rewarding valuable work, ensuring that all our nation’s children have the daily care and experiences that give them a good start in life and more.




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