Childcare Workers Underpaid, While Families Face High Care Costs

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.

 

 

One Response to Childcare Workers Underpaid, While Families Face High Care Costs

  1. […] recent post on childcare worker wages teed up, but didn’t explore an apparent paradox. While the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s