Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

“Is the most precious thing in your life worth more than a poverty wage?” The Nation asks in a recent article called, “How Childcare Actually Causes Poverty in America.”

In other words, many of America’s young children are in preschool settings being taught and cared for by staff members who earn so little that they’re among the working poor.

“Although we see good early childcare as a way to ameliorate poverty, the fact of the matter is, we are generating poverty in the early childhood workforce,” Marcy Whitebook tells the Nation. She is the head of the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

“Activists are pushing for a $15 hourly base wage for preschool teachers and childcare workers. Many are currently college grads earning poverty wages, which have basically stagnated for nearly twenty years,” the article says.

“As the Fight for 15 movement gains momentum for fast food and retail workers, advocates are asking, if the people who prepare your lunch deserve a living wage, surely so do the people preparing our toddlers for school?

“The campaign, launched this week by the Fight for $15 in collaboration with the Make it Work coalition and other groups, lays out a multi-pronged proposal for making ‘high quality, flexible care more affordable and accessible for all families.’ Through federal funding and workforce reforms, this would provide ‘Guaranteed childcare subsidies for middle-and low-income families… to ensure that child care costs no more than 10 percent of pay,’ and wage floor for educators and caregivers of $15 an hour.”

The article adds: “The proposal was also boosted in a new House resolution,” filed by Representatives Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), and Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona). The bill calls for a “$15-an-hour minimum wage and federally funded expansion of childcare and educational programs.”

That bill also points to key challenges that hurt families and the economy, including:

• “businesses lose $3 billion annually due to employee absenteeism resulting from child care challenges”

• “child care is difficult to find for millions of families, particularly the nearly 9,000,000 parents who work nonstandard hours, when only 8 percent of child care centers provide evening or weekend care”

• “most middle-class families struggle to afford high-quality child care, with the median aggregate cost of nearly $16,000 per year for full-time care for an infant and a 4-year-old in a child care center”

In addition, the bill notes that “increased pay for workers in the child care industry improves the quality of child care for young children,” and “a full-time living wage of at least $15 per hour is needed for all child care workers to meet their families’ essential needs, but the average child care center worker earns $10.60 per hour and has experienced no increase in real earnings since 1997.”

To raise wages, the country has to make an investment. The Nation says there is “a considerable price tag: an estimated $168 billion annually, but this could be achieved by progressive tax reforms like closing corporate loopholes. And it’s a chance for lawmakers on the left and right to make good on promises to invest more in boosting children’s ‘academic readiness.’”

“‘There isn’t ‘good cheap childcare.’ This is one of those situations where if you go for the bargain, you’re not going to get as good a product,” Whitebook tells the Nation.

The article adds: “Currently, impoverished workers care for impoverished kids, but ‘the only way you’re really going to make it work for kids and families is to make sure that you have a skilled and stable workforce.’”

“For the kids, an exhausted and financially stressed staff can’t provide an optimally nurturing classroom experience. Poverty may drive her out of the profession altogether — despite growing needs, the sector suffers massive turnover rates as high as 30 percent. Since perceptions of career prospects and fair pay can be key factors in worker retention, competitive wage scales (preschool teachers generally earn much less than similarly qualified kindergarten teachers) would foster a dedicated, career-track workforce.”