by Paula Drew, WEESSN Co-Director 

I often struggle with how to present the injustices within the early care and education (ECE) sector without making early educators sound like victims because they are anything but. However, inadequate financing of child care often results in poor working conditions. And so, I must spend some time addressing how this impacts early childhood educators over time and the implications this has on children and families. Fair warning: this was realistic, yet hard post to write and will likely be hard to read. 

Nationally, 98% of the ECE workforce are women and over 30% are people of color. While this diversity is excellent for our children, the compressed wages common in this field, are lowest for black and brown early educators ($0.78 less per hour than white early educators, which means $1,622.40 less per year for a full-time, full-year worker), which amplifies our nation’s already stark gender and racial wage gapsNext to the average American with the same education, there is a wage penalty of 23% for anyone choosing to work in early care and education. In fact, a degree in ECE has the lowest lifetime earnings potential of all college degrees. 

Only 15% of the ECE workforce has health insurance sponsored through their employer, while the national average for the U.S. workforce is 50%. Over half of ECE professionals rely on at least one type of public assistance like EITC, Medicaid/CHIP, SNAP, and/or TANF to get by, which represents twice the rate of the national average14.7% of ECE professionals live below the poverty line, compared to 6.7% of all workers and 36.7% live in families with household income at 200% of the poverty line or below. 

How ECE Compares to Average American Workers 
Health Insurance  Employer Sponsored Retirement  Reliance on Public Benefits  Living below the poverty line 
ECE  US Avg  ECE  US Avg  ECE  US Avg  ECE  US Avg 
15%  50%  9.6%  39%  50%  25%  14.7%  6.7% 

 Low wages and lack of benefits lead to economic insecurity. Economic insecurity creates  negative psychological consequences like stress, depression, anxiety, and elevated cortisol levelsEconomic insecurity can also negatively affect attention, decision making, and memoryOver time, the stress of economic insecurity can impede executive functioning and work performance. Low wage workers are more prone to accidents, are less present in their work, and have higher rates of absenteeism. 

Because of this, in the classroom we see low wages affect teacher’s mood, turnover rates and measures of classroom qualityThe cornerstone for high-quality ECE is skilled and attentive early educators. Classroom turnover damages the teacher-child relationship and slows the learning process for children What’s hard to admit, but not hard to comprehend, is that only 10% of early care and education programs nation-wide are truly high-qualityAnd what’s worse, the lifetime benefits and societal savings ECE promisesonly happen in high-quality settings.  

While children from low-income families often gain the most from attending highquality early care and education programsthey are least likely to have access to such programsLow child care subsidy rates (in WI hovering around 35% of market rate) mean that programs serving predominantly low-income families have the least amount of revenue to hire highly qualified staff, purchase engaging materials, and keep facilities in health and safety compliance. 

Child care is a broken market; parents cannot afford to pay what the actual cost of high-quality care would be and despite what appears to be very high rates, child care programs uniformly are not charging the true cost of careThe financial hurdles don’t stop there. Most of the 3,896,000 individual child care programs in our nation spend time and money to separately maintain their administrative duties (payroll, HR, compliance, curriculum, facilities, etc.) in addition to overseeing quality programming. What’s moremost states require ECE programs to submit data and reports to a number of agencies; often the information required is redundant. This disconnect creates significant inefficiencies, costing programs precious resources. The lack of a streamlined “system” of early care and education makes it more expensive and exhausting to do this workAnd, because of these constraintsthe majority of the ECE sector was woefully unprepared to navigate the financial losses and new operating requirements during the pandemic 

Programs that I interviewed who were part of a larger organization, shared services network or franchise, were able to benefit from sharing some resources and support, but independent programs had a very different experienceThey talked about feeling overwhelmed at every turn. Even agencies, like public health, sometimes missed the mark in recognizing what type of information or resources child care providers needed, especially since babies don’t do social distancingA void of industry-informed knowledge created confusion. Providers often had to lean on each other through social media and other online forums to exchange ideas on best practiceWithout a system, it was also more difficult to get PPE and other supplies to providers as well  

This field needs and deserves a systematic investment in the early childhood workforce and a streamlined infrastructure, so that programs can focus their time, resources, and expertise on what they are best at — providing quality care and learning environments for children. We love to say it takes a village to raise a child, but each child does not have access to a wellsupported “village”. When will the United States join other industrialized nations in investing in its most precious resources? 

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