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Quality child care, equity for workers

A need for adequate child care provided in a financially responsible manner

One of my daughters recently moved from Olympia to Brooklyn NY, where she works as the director of a preschool. Her school, open from 7am to 6pm, Monday through Friday, is designed to serve kids between 2 and 4 years old. They have a quality curriculum and developmentally appropriate activities; they go on frequent field trips and spend Fridays in the park when the weather permits. The staff are nearly all women—and while they are paid a competitive rate based on NYC standards, there’s a constant tension in the preschool between keeping tuition affordable for parents and paying staff a fair and live-able wage.

That doesn’t have to be the case. The importance of child development and early learning is getting unprecedented attention at the state and federal level. It should—the first years of children’s lives are critical in terms of development, and other countries are well ahead of the United States in coming up with policies that take child development seriously, as a matter of national (rather than individual) interest. In spite of the focus on early learning, too much of the rhetoric about affordable, quality child care omits a discussion of the shamefully low wages paid to the people who do this important work.

How much should childcare cost?

Following first the dominant parent-centered theme in the conversation about affordable child care, rather than theme of fair wages, I did a quick investigation for Thurston County. What if, I wondered, I had a child—not an infant, just over a year—and needed full-time child care? What could I expect to pay? Using the Child Care Aware of Washington search engine, I typed in the name of my imaginary child aged 13 months, and my address. I received 12 referrals, and of these, the cheapest was $150 per week, and the most expensive, $235. If I needed childcare for 48 weeks, assuming I could be home for 4 weeks a year, I’d be paying a minimum of $7200 a year for childcare.

Last month, supported by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Washington’s Senator Patty Murray introduced a resolution calling for affordable, accessible, and high-quality child care. Chief among the specific proposals within the resolution is the principle that no one should pay more than 10% of their income for childcare. In the context of my investigation in Thurston County, unless I was eligible for subsidies, I’d need to be making $72,000 a year.

How much should childcare workers make?

The same week I checked the prices of full-time daycare for my hypothetical 13-month old, I checked Craigslist to see if I could find a job as a childcare provider. Of the ten or so positions listed, four listed the rate of pay. Best paid was a position at Centralia College, at $12.57 an hour, but the minimum requirements included at least 12 college credits. Lowest paid was a pre-school assistant, with a starting wage of $9.47 an hour—$378.80 a week, assuming I could work 40 hours.  According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Washington State annual mean for child care workers as of May 2014 was $22,670-26,470. In Olympia, the average wage for a full-time child care worker was $20,620 a year, or $991/month.

The other key provision in Murray’s senate resolution, backed by the nonprofit advocacy group Make It Work, is that childcare workers should be paid at least a living wage ($15 an hour)—and preferably, on par with K-12 educators. The important principle is that quality child care can’t be sustained on the backs of poorly paid workers. Wages for childcare workers have to linked with the need to make childcare affordable. That combination requires smart policy interventions at the state and federal levels.

Who’s proposing what in the presidential primaries?

Republican presidential candidates want and need the support of families. Their vehement stance against letting women choose whether to bring pregnancies to term, and even to fund birth control, is based at least in theory on an espoused reverence for life—for children. Yet the candidates’ current family and child-related policies leave much to be desired.

Until he changed his mind, Ben Carson suggested that he might consider raising the minimum wage, a move that would effect the wages of many childcare workers and parents of young children. He also proposed indexing the minimum wage to the rate of inflation, which would result in regular increases (or decreases) as the cost of living rose (or fell). He reversed himself this month, stating (contrary to evidence) that raising the minimum wage always causes an increase in joblessness and he was opposed to it.

Marco Rubio opposes raising the minimum wage, but as a self-proclaimed “family-friendly” candidate, he is the first among Republican contenders to propose paid family leave. However, workers, including working mothers with young children, who hold low-wage or part-time jobs typically don’t have access to paid leave, and this new proposal wouldn’t effect them either.

On the Democrat side of the race, positions differ as well. In April 2015, Hillary Clinton tweeted that “Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn’t have to march in streets for living wages. –H” However, Clinton does not support the $15 an hour wage increase, except for fast food workers in NYC. Instead, she would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Bernie Sanders, who has worked as a preschool teacher, supports increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years. He introduced a bill in the Senate in July to that effect.  Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, also supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The trouble is, unless living wages for childcare workers gets coupled with calls for affordable childcare, we won’t actually make progress towards a more equitable situation.

A formula for fairness

Vivien Labaton, one of the founders of Make it Work, outlines the recent history of policy efforts to make childcare affordable in a November 9 article for Politico. Following up on the Murray/Congressional Progressive Caucus resolution, Make it Work introduced a child care proposal that would do exactly what the congressional resolution calls for:

Put high-quality child care within reach for working families. It would guarantee child care assistance to middle- and low-income families with children aged 12 or younger, ensuring that child care constitutes no more than 10 percent of a household’s pay. Importantly, this proposal also compensates child care providers in a way that is more commensurate with their responsibilities by setting a wage of at least $15 an hour.

According to Labaton, a majority of voters want “a national solution to affordable child care”—a poll conducted by Make it Work last January found that over 74% of voters supported federal investment in affordable child care. Why? Because quality child care eventually pays for itself, in the form of improvements in child health, development, and learning.

As the presidential debates drag on or heat up, depending on your perspectives, and as state and local campaigns begin to start moving, keep your eye on these two key issues: do candidates support high quality, affordable child care? And do they also support a living wage for child care workers? Quality childcare isn’t sustainable without fair wages for childcare workers, and a more equitable society isn’t possible without quality childcare.

Emily Lardner lives and works in Olympia, Washington.


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