Business & economics, Education

Poverty wages keep child care teachers in ‘grim financial bind,’ says new report

A third of child care professionals said they were on public assistance, and a like number suffered from food insecurity, says a new Berkeley study.

a child care teacher leads a half dozen young children across a back-yard playground on a sunny day
The crisis in California child care dates back decades. One recent report from the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment described a system that has chronically relied “on paying poverty and near-poverty-level wages.” (Ana Fox-Hodess | UC Berkeley)
a child care teacher leads a half dozen young children across a back-yard playground on a sunny day

The crisis in California child care dates back decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a deep toll. According to a new report from the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, the system has chronically relied “on paying poverty and near-poverty-level wages.” (Credit: Ana Fox-Hodess/UC Berkeley)

California’s child care providers and teachers are earning such low wages that many need government assistance to make ends meet, and conditions are so dire that “radical reform” is needed to support them and to stabilize the entire child care system, says a new UC Berkeley study.

Among nearly 8,000 child care staff surveyed in 2020, median wages are below or near federal poverty levels, says the report from Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CCSCE). About a third reported that they are enrolled in Medi-Cal or other forms of public assistance, and a like percentage reported basic food insecurity.

The new study found that early educators — mostly women of color and immigrant women — struggle in “a grim financial bind” because of California’s low public investment in the child care system.

headshot of Lea Austin, co-director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE)

Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (Credit: UC Berkeley)

This financial stress has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made the low wages educators depend on even more unreliable. The stress is reflected in a shortage of child care services for working families, and that creates risks for the California economy, said CSCCE Director Lea Austin. There are at least 1 million children on the waiting list for subsidized child care.

“We need long-term solutions to ensure early educators’ economic well-being,” Austin said in an interview.  “Without that, parents are going to keep having trouble finding the quality child care they need.”

“The economy can’t work without child care,” Austin added. “And child care can’t work without teachers.”

One early childhood educator quoted in the report is an immigrant with a bachelor’s degree from her home country in Asia and extensive training in early childhood education. But even after five years working at a center in California, she still earns only $15 per hour — a little more than $30,000 a year, before taxes.

“This profession surely requires education to give better quality care, but it seems like it is not being respected enough, in terms of salary,” she told the Berkeley researchers. “Even if I work full time, 40 hours a week, my annual salary is still below poverty level.”

“‘The Forgotten Ones’ — The Economic Well-Being of Early Educators During COVID-19” is based on the largest study in 15 years of California child care business owners and teachers. It offers troubling insight into conditions that affect nearly 140,000 child care providers, teachers and administrators working at California’s child care centers and care programs based in family homes.

The new report was researched and written by Austin; CSCCE analysts Anna Powell, Elena Montoya, Yoonjeon Kim and Abby Copeman Petig; and consultant Raúl Chávez.

It underscores the dire conclusions that emerged nearly two years ago in a separate CSCCE report on how COVID-19 had forced hundreds of California child care centers to close and put countless others at risk.

A child care system based on poverty-level wages

Today’s crisis dates back decades, but according to the new report, one condition has been constant: California’s child care system “relies on paying poverty and near-poverty-level wages.” The impact on child care workers — and on child care homes and centers — is stark.

  • The median wage for a California child care worker in 2019 was $13.43 per hour, while preschool teachers earned $16.83 per hour. By comparison, however, a kindergarten teacher earned $41.86 per hour — and even that was just above the California living wage for a single parent with one child.
  • In the first year of the pandemic, more than 40% of family child care providers and nearly a third of center-based teachers were enrolled in public assistance programs, such as Medi-Cal or food support.
  • Roughly one-third of early childhood teachers experienced food insecurity, with either not enough food to eat, or not enough quality or nutritional food. For women of color, the prevalence of food insecurity rose to 39%, and to 42% for immigrant educators.
  • Almost one in three family child care providers in the early months of the pandemic were behind on rent or mortgage payments for the homes where they provide care.
a child care teacher sits between two young children at a tiny indoor table as the children focus on learning materials

Median wages are below or near federal poverty levels, says the new UC Berkeley report. About a third of surveyed child care professionals reported that they are enrolled in Medi-Cal or other public assistance. A similar percentage said they’re suffering from food insecurity. (Credit: Ana Fox-Hodess/UC Berkeley)

The pandemic dramatically compounded the stresses on early care and education professionals in other ways, too, the report found. Some providers shut down their operations, temporarily or permanently. Workers were laid off and furloughed. Forty percent of family care providers and a third of center teachers in the state applied for unemployment after the pandemic hit in 2020.

As staffs were reduced, some educators had to put in longer hours. Meanwhile, 43% of those who operate child care centers from their homes said they were unable to pay themselves salaries for periods in 2020.

Black educators were far more likely to experience such negative business consequences, the report found.

“It’s no wonder that programs are understaffed, and many have closed, which means families can’t find the child care they need,” Austin said. “There was already a shortage before the pandemic, and the people who remain are under incredible financial, emotional and physical stress.”

The importance of long-term public funding for child care

According to the study, however, centers with federal Head Start or California State Preschool funding were more sheltered from COVID’s negative impact. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento implemented measures to shield the centers from dramatic income loss. And, the researchers found, 90% of administrators and staff at those centers had no problem paying the program’s rent or themselves and did not have to take on debt to cover costs.

a small, empty blue chair at a table in an empty early child education center.

The threat of COVID-19 forced numerous early child care centers to limit operations or close. That meant reduced hours for staff members who were already struggling financially and made care more scarce for families. (Credit: Brittany Hosea-Small/UC Berkeley)

That, the authors said, points to the “radical reforms” that could address economic disparities between different types of providers and between those who do and do not have public funding.

One priority for policymakers, they wrote, should be to establish contract-based models with state and federal funding for both centers and home-based providers. This is similar to how Head Start and state preschool funds are currently distributed.

They urged policymakers to set a minimum wage for California’s early educators, based on regional costs of living and by taking into account workers’ education and experience. An ideal target would be parity with kindergarten and elementary school teachers, they said. The CSCCE  has found that among the state’s early childhood educators, the majority have college degrees.

Policymakers should also develop solutions to end inequality that harms women of color and immigrants in the early child care and education field.

Without such solutions, the Berkeley report warned, the pandemic’s damage to California’s child care system could be permanent. Some care facilities that closed during the pandemic may never reopen, and younger child care professionals may leave the field for work that pays a living wage.

“We can’t fault people for leaving for jobs with better pay and health insurance and not coming back to child care,” Austin said. “We can’t get to good, stable child care if we can’t stabilize and support the early care and education workforce. Until we intervene with public resources, the problem will not go away.”

With hopes cautiously rising that the pandemic will ease, “I just want to work and recover my life, little by little,” said one care provider who was interviewed for the report. “If there were support for us providers, even loans, so I could pay the mortgage and keep my house, that would be great.

“I don’t want to have to close and look for another job, because I really like working with children.”