Transcript: On Worthy Wage Day, early childhood educators fight for support

This is Fiat Vox, a podcast that brings you news and stories from UC Berkeley by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. I’m your host, Anne Brice.

Anyone with young kids knows that finding the right childcare can be really hard. I have a 2-year-old son named River.

RIVER: Hi mama.

When I found out I was pregnant, I started visiting a bunch of different childcare providers. A lot of them I didn’t like. They often felt kind of impersonal — like the people working were overwhelmed and didn’t really have a bond with the kids.

And I found out that to experts in early education, this isn’t surprising.

[Music: “Aourourou” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Marcy Whitebook is the director of the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at UC Berkeley. She says it’s hard for early educators to provide consistent, quality care when they’re not paid a living wage or provided decent conditions for the work they do.

WHITEBOOK: The science is saying very clearly that learning starts at birth. Early childhood is the most sensitive period of children’s lives. The people who do this work need the same level of skill and knowledge as teachers of older children. And, in fact, the well-being of the teachers is very, very important to the quality of interactions they have with the children.

Whitebook got started in the field as a childcare teacher in the 1970s. She made less than $2 an hour. She was amazed at how little money she made for the hard and important work she did with infants and toddlers.

WHITEBOOK: People are going, “It doesn’t make any sense.”

So she and other educators got together and started to do whatever they could to draw attention to the issue. Some of their techniques were unconventional.

WHITEBOOK: We were a little bit into guerrilla theater.

At one point, they made a cardboard coffin and held a procession for the dying childcare field at a national conference they were attending.

[Clip: “Amazing Grace” played on bagpipes via YouTube]

In 1992,  Whitebook and her fellow activist teachers launched a national campaign, called Worthy Wage Day, which is today, May 1. The campaign was a hit.

[Music: “Silk and Silver” by Blue Dot Sessions]

WHITEBOOK: If you can imagine what going viral meant in the days of just barely fax machines… (laughs)

They hung posters, passed out flyers and buttons, organized marches and conferences — anything they could do to get the word out.

On the day of, more than 120 organizations in 30 states participated, holding teach-ins, rallies and other events. Marcy and her team even made it onto CBS’s “Eye on America.”

[News clip: People cheering. No one else is going to speak up for those children unless we do. We have every right to demand quality childcare!]

In 1999, Marcy came to UC Berkeley and started the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment, part of the Institute for Labor Research and Employment. At the center, researchers conduct studies and policy analysis of how our nation prepares, supports and compensates people who work with young children before they enter kindergarten.

[Music: “Vernouillet” by Blue Dot Sessions]

So, what is early care and education in the U.S. like today?

First, most providers are women. And about half are women of color. Typically, wages are quite low and health benefits and paid vacation or sick days aren’t always  provided by the employer. Turnover is high, which has been proven to be hard on kids, and many programs shut down completely or never start up.

And, as I quickly found out when I was looking for childcare, the monthly cost to families can be really high. Only a small percentage of low-income families receive subsidies they are eligible for because of limited funds.

And, Whitebook points out, the quality of care depends on what you can afford.

WHITEBOOK: That just drives inequity. Just like what restaurant you can go or where you can buy your clothes or where you can buy your house, it’s like in a private market. You know, the resources you have determine what you get.

It’s a bad situation for everyone. One that Whitebook says requires more public support.

WHITEBOOK: I don’t think we can solve this for parents, kids or the workforce without a hefty public investment.

So has anything in the field changed in the past five decades?

WHITEBOOK: We’re talking about fundamentally changing how we value how we define education, how we value the work that women have done and how we basically support families. And so, it’s not something that was going to change in a generation.

But she does think her activism and her center’s research — reinforced by that of the National Academies of Sciences and others — is helping people realize how important early education is and perhaps is paving the way for social movements, like the ongoing nationwide teachers’ protest.

[News clip: Woman at teachers’ protest: We are here today to show the legislature that we care about schools, that we love our children and that we want them to put our students first.]

WHITEBOOK: I’m curious to see how with going on in K-12, how that may sort of give rise to a new generation of teacher-activists in early childhood.

It’ll be up to this new generation, she says, to carry on the fight.

For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.

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