"Despite the crucial nature of their work, child care workers’ job quality does not seem to be valued in today’s economy," wrote Elise Gould, the author of a 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
Child care workers — including people who care for children in day care centers, in preschools, as nannies, through religious organizations, and in other facilities — are paid almost 40 percent less than all other workers.
Of course, some workers tend to earn more or less based on their education, age, race, where they live, or other factors. But even controlling for things like that, child care workers make 23 percent less than other workers who are similar to them but work in other industries. Child care workers are also more than twice as likely to live in poverty, and very few receive benefits like health insurance. More than one-third of them live at twice the poverty level or below. (Some economists think the "twice poverty" metric is a better measure of how well families can actually make ends meet than the formula for the official poverty threshold, which was calculated in the 1960s.)
And this is probably an optimistic assessment of how much child care workers make. The data set EPI analyzed doesn't include self-employed child care workers, who make up about a quarter of the child care workforce and tend to make even less money, based on other estimates.
There's also very little room for advancement in the child care field, and education and experience don't do a whole lot to boost child care workers' earnings. If you work in child care and have a bachelor's degree, you will be rewarded with about a 40 percent smaller paycheck than your peers in other fields get — along with all of the student debt you may have racked up in the process.
Women-dominated industries tend to pay less overall
An astounding 95 percent of child care workers are women, according to the EPI report. And it may not be a coincidence that there is such a big "child care wage penalty" in such a women-dominated industry.
Sociologist Paula England argues that if an industry is dominated by women or is seen as "women's work" (definitely the case for child care), employers implicitly set wages lower: "It is as if there were a cognitive bias toward thinking that if jobs are done by women, they cannot be worth much," England said in a 2010 address. "Institutional inertia cements this bias into wage structures."
Other research [PDF] by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) shows a "wage penalty" for both men and women who work in women-dominated industries.
This isn't because these industries happen to be lower-skilled or less valuable, or because lower-skilled or less valuable people tend to cluster into those industries. England said that the same person will gain money moving from a female- to a male-dominated industry and the other way around — and, moreover, that as an industry "feminizes," its wages tend to decrease.
One major historical example of this is "temp" work, which used to be synonymous with "women's work." But now that temporary jobs with low wages and poor job security are overtaking the entire economy, both men and women experience the precarious effects of that.
Child care workers are still paid a pittance even though child care is wildly expensive
It's well-established that high-quality early child care is essential for children's brain development, but American society doesn't make it easy for working parents to access or afford that care. In most states, child care is more expensive than college. Child care costs make up a large percentage of household income and are rising faster than wages, which are stagnant across the board. A lot of families can't get by these days without two incomes, and even then it's a struggle — but child care costs so much that it's actually causing an increase in the number of stay-at-home moms.
That's the case even for middle-class families, so you can imagine how hard it is for child care workers, who make so little money, to afford care for their own children. In most states, child care gobbles up at least a third of non-preschool child care workers' incomes, and it's more than half in many cases.
EPI's report also breaks down the data on how much child care workers make, and how much they would need to make in order to maintain a "modest yet adequate standard of living" according to EPI's family budget calculator. It varies around the country, but in most areas, more than 90 percent of non-preschool child care workers don't even make enough for one person to maintain a decent standard of living. If they're supporting a child or a spouse, that picture gets even bleaker.
It's not totally clear why child care workers make so little while child care is so expensive. The lower valuation of women-dominated industries can be a factor, Gould says. Another reason is overall labor costs — high-quality child care requires a very low caregiver-to-child ratio, which requires a lot of workers. So even if workers aren't being paid much, it still costs a lot to hire enough of them. It could also have something to do with strict licensing requirements and the increased demand for licensed child care providers.
Either way, it's clear that you can't get high-quality child care without paying for it. But it's also clear that the current system can't, or won't, pay child care workers enough to give them a decent quality of life. That also makes it hard to attract, and retain, high-quality caregivers for children.
"It's not the kind of thing where you can get 'productivity gains' in the usual way we think about economics, because what would that mean?" Gould said. "Increase the ratio of children to workers who care for them? That would be considered a productivity improvement, or efficiency gain, in some way — but boosting that ratio conflicts directly with the desire to provide high-quality care." That means we have to look at government solutions, Gould said — state and local as well as federal.
One solution could be beefing up child care subsidies or expanding universal pre-K. Or it could involve something a lot bigger and bolder, like the universal child care program that the United States actually had briefly during World War II. The program worked pretty well then. It could work again now if we could muster the political will to make it happen.