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

When Marcy Whitebook worked as a childcare teacher in the 1970s, she made less than $2 an hour. She was amazed at how little she made for the hard and important work she did with infants and toddlers. So Whitebook, with a group of teacher-activists, launched a national campaign in 1992 called Worthy Wage Day. The day of action, held every year on May 1, aims to raise awareness of the low wages earned by early childhood educators and draw attention to the chronic underfunding of public education.

In this podcast episode, Whitebook, now the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley, talks about how she and her team used faxes and mimeographs to get Worthy Wage Day to go viral.

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River riding a little car

2-year-old River showing his Cal spirit (Photo by Daniel Olbrych)

Following is a written version of Fiat Vox podcast episode #30: “On Worthy Wage Day, early childhood educators fight for support:”

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

“Hi mama,” says River.

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.

Marcy Whitebook is the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care 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.

“The science is saying very clearly that learning starts at birth,” says Whitebook. “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.”

Marcy Whitebook with kids on a playground

Marcy Whitebook made less than $2 an hour as an early childhood teacher in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Marcy Whitebook)

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. “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.

“We were a little bit into guerrilla theater,” she says.

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

Marcy Whitebook

Whitebook and a group of early educators began to draw attention to the low wages and underfunding of early childhood education. (Photo courtesy of Marcy Whitebook)

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.

“If you can imagine what going viral meant in the days of just barely fax machines…”

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. Whitebook and her team even made it onto CBS’s “Eye on America.” “No one else is going to speak up for those children unless we do,” yells a woman at a rally. “We have every right to demand quality childcare!”

Marcy Whitebook with a group of teachers

Whitebook (far left) and a group of teacher-activists started Worthy Wage Day in 1992. (Photo courtesy of Marcy Whitebook)

In 1999, Whitebook 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.

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, leaving childcare deserts in certain areas.

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.

Marcy Whitebook

Marcy Whitebook is the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

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

“That just drives inequity,” she says. “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.

“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?

“We’re talking about fundamentally changing how we value, how we define education,” she says, “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.

teachers marching with signs

Milwaukee Public School teachers and supporters picket outside Milwaukee Public Schools Administration in April 2018. (Photo by Charles Miller via Flickr)

“We are here today to raise our voices to show our legislature that we care about schools,” says a teacher at a strike in Kentucky in April, “that we love our children and we want them to put our students first.

“I’m curious to see how that may sort of give rise to a new generation of teacher-activists in early childhood education,” says Whitebook.

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