For working parents with young children, it’s a big challenge: Scramble to find an accessible, quality childcare program, and be prepared to pay dearly for it, about as much per year as college tuition costs. But there is another childcare crisis in America. And it affects those who look after our kids.
For Theresa Carmouche, a mother of young twins and an early childhood educator, it’s a supreme irony. The director of a daycare center in Louisiana, she’s so underpaid — $11.75 an hour, a few bucks more than an average burger-flipper — that she can barely afford to send her own children to the center she supervises.
“It boggles my mind: Working here and having the same credentials [as a public-school teacher] and making [close to] minimum wage,” says Carmouche, director at the nonprofit Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) of Avoyelles in the small town of Marksville, near the center of Louisiana. The low-income cash assistance for childcare she gets from the state helps, but it also doesn’t go very far.
“I’m working,” she says, “but just enough to pay for child care.”
Carmouche is living in a crisis lurking underneath the broader daycare dilemma, one that’s seemingly invisible to the legions of stressed-out mothers and fathers who drop off their children at centers and converted homes nationwide each morning on the way to work.
The roughly 2.1 million day care providers working families depend on nationwide — caregivers who are overwhelmingly female, per Census data, and earned an average of $15,473 in 2016 — are minding others’ children yet often have few preschool options for their own kids when it’s time to go to work.
Some, like Carmouche, can bring their kids to the centers they work for, an option that can eat up most if not all of their monthly paychecks; others turn to retired grandparents, aunts and uncles and sometimes even friendly neighbors in a pinch.
But if elderly relatives nor their daycare center are options — ECDC doesn’t give Carmouche a discount on tuition — and relatives aren’t an option, some daycare center workers face a choice: Miss work, and a day’s wages, or send the kids to someone’s home or an unlicensed caregiver who might park them in front of a video screen instead of sitting them down for storytime or the ABCs.
It’s reflective of a general devaluing of work [undertaken] by women.
Though she takes a financial hit paying for the twins to attend the childcare center Carmouche says it is worth it. “I know [the staff] is teaching the kids. And they’re getting social skills,” she says, noting that at some in-home daycare programs rely on TV to keep kids entertained. “They’re usually, like, ‘Barney’s on, you guys.’”
“It’s a very bleak picture,” says Dayna Kurtz, director of the Anna Keefe Women's Center at the Training Institute for Mental Health. According to Kurtz, women like Carmouche are practically holding up the system supporting 10 million children and their families, yet can’t seem to get ahead because of low wages and a dearth of policy solutions.
“In terms of what else a woman in her position can do today or tomorrow, I wish I could offer something viable,” Kurtz says. “There aren’t, that I’m aware of, any existing solutions to solve the problem today. The result is that a lot of families are suffering. They are barely scraping by — they are living paycheck to paycheck and there are a generation of children who are getting the short end of the stick as a result.”
“I think it’s reflective of a general devaluing of work [undertaken] by women,” Kurtz says. “We see these economic disparities [largely] in disciplines that are more often than not staffed by women.”
Sociologists and economists blame the disparity between the high cost of daycare for middle-class families and the low pay for the people who perform that work on a series of economic woes, from the plunging national birth rate to the persistent, seemingly intractable pay gap between men and women.
Even though more men are stepping up to help with the kids, surveys show women still do most of the heavy lifting, whether they have paying jobs or not. Consider: Since 1975, the portion of U.S. mothers who work outside the home has increased by 50 percent, yet, on average, a married U.S. mother spends nearly 90 hours engaged in active child care each week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Studies suggest that, when working women decide to have children, they pay a “mother penalty”: their wages stall and their advancement up the career ladder takes longer, putting economic pressure on single- and dual-income households. Lack of adequate daycare, experts say, can be one more distraction on top of everything else.
“If you have a mother or a father who have to go to work and is unable to fully be present at his or her job because he or she is concerned about the level of care his or her child is receiving during the day, that's a measure of [societal] failure,” Kurtz says. “You have somebody who’s not being able to fully realize his or her potential.”
But the kids can suffer, too: Multiple long-term studies (like this 2001 study in School Psychology Quarterly) show supervised early-education programs — singing songs and playing games that help strengthen a child’s vocabulary, improving early literacy skills and establishing healthy behaviors — are critical to academic success. The stakes are even higher for poor families, experts say, as strong preschools can help put children on a path out of poverty.
Factor in that the U.S. is the only Western industrialized nation that doesn’t offer paid parental leave, and it’s no surprise parents are willing to pay top dollar for quality daycare programs — if they can find them. Decades of federal and state underfunding for early childhood education led to dwindling enrollment in daycare programs among needy families, shrinking the number of options for families across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Hardest hit, however, are families of color who arguably need them most, with nearly 60 percent living in “childcare deserts” — “areas with an undersupply of licensed child care,” according to a new report from Center of American Progress. And those who have access to daycare often fall victim to the laws of supply and demand, priced out of top-notch programs or placed on a waiting list.
“To bring it all home, in 2014 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared that the official affordability threshold [for daycare] was about 10 percent or less of a family’s income,” says Kurtz. “It is, more often than not, substantially more than that,” upwards of $20,000 per year or more per child.
For child care providers, Carmouche says, it’s hard math. The center she works for charges $125 per week per child, and she’s got young twins, doubling the cost. “I’m a 5-week mom. That's $1,350. That’s exactly what I make each month right now,” she says, “So that's not paying the bills outside of child care.”
“I could have asked my mom-in-law to keep them, but she’s older and she’s not fit to keep 2-year-olds.”
According to the 2018 Early Childhood Education Workforce Index, an annual report produced by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, between 2015 and 2017, median wages for child care workers nationwide increased by 7 percent. Yet in all states in 2017, “child care workers earned less than two-thirds of the median wage for all occupations in the state — a common threshold for classifying work as ‘low wage.’”
Among low-income families, “the need is enormous,” says Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning issues at the National Women’s Law Center. She notes that the waitlist for affordable, state-subsidized daycare in California alone was 200,000 families.
Even as they slashed funding, however lawmakers — capitalizing politically on the benefits of early education — upped the qualifications for childcare workers, requiring candidates for licensed programs to meet educational or training standards on par with most elementary-school teachers.
There’s no family that doesn’t complain about childcare.
But the higher standards for the black and Latino women who look after America’s children doesn’t usually translate into higher pay, in part because the overhead of most licensed daycare programs include premiums on expensive liability insurance along with utilities, supplies and maintenance.
“Early educators’ skills, knowledge, and well-being are inseparable from the quality of children’s early learning experiences, yet our system of preparing, supporting, and rewarding early educators in the United States remains largely ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable,” concluded the 2018 Berkeley paper.
It reported that dwindling government funding is the chief culprit, forcing families to pay out of pocket with next to no financial support for a major expense that’s an important part of the economy.
“They do the best they can because they can’t afford it or they stretch” relying on friends and family when they have to, says Blank. “It’s a big challenge. There’s no family that doesn’t complain about childcare.”
Shanetha Pollnitz, a daycare proprietor in the Chicago area, has seen both sides of the childcare debate.
Decades ago, as a young working mother without much money and with a schedule that constantly changed, finding daycare for her two preschool-age children frequently was a puzzle without an obvious solution.
“I would work 9 a.m. to maybe 5 p.m three days a week, and then maybe 12 p.m. to 9 a.m.,” says Pollnitz. “Many times, I had to rely on family and friends — someone who is retired, and has a pension, that don’t need a lot of money. Because otherwise I would have lost my job.”
Her go-to person was Linda Paraffin, a retired friend she relied on “at the last minute: “‘Can you please come and help me so I can get to work and I won’t be late again?’” Pollnitz says.
Now that her children have kids of their own and the shoe is on the other foot — Pollnitz supervises three daycare centers in Chicago — providing childcare for low-income families in an era of cutbacks and high standards is challenging at the very least.
“I struggle to make payroll every payroll period,” says Pollnitz, who hires low-income working mothers for her staff, in part to help them escape poverty. “We have high turnover even in the teaching staff, because it’s so much. It’s stressful, doing this every day, 40 hours a week. You have to have the passion, but it’s a high-burnout field.”
If a provider has young kids of her own, “the stress is even worse,” Pollnitz adds.
“You really can’t afford it,” she says. “Or if [you're] affording it you’re barely making your bills. You are barely, barely making it. And you’re working all those hours. Servicing those families. So that is then a challenge for me and it’s a challenge for the families I’m serving, especially in at-risk communities.”
Kurtz of the Anna Keeth’s Women’s Center, says it’s no accident that the burden falls disproportionately on low-income women like Carmouche, and women of color, like Pollnitz. Pushing strollers, changing soiled diapers, keeping track of restless toddlers and teaching social skills can be difficult, thankless work.
“There is probably some institutionalized racism across the childcare field,” Kurtz says. “These are fields are disproportionately staffed by women of color” and the work is often viewed as unskilled labor, taken for granted, even though studies show it’s critical to child development as well as a productive workforce.
That sets up a profound dichotomy: Parents paying an arm and a leg for child care, even though the women who do the work can barely make ends meet on their salary.
In France, the government subsidizes daycare, and nursery school is free.
“One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care,” reported a Care.com survey released last summer. “Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.”
Only families in the United Kingdom (33 percent of household income spent on child care) New Zealand (29 percent) and Ireland (26 percent) spend more.
On average, parents in the world’s 30 wealthiest nations spend about 15 percent of their income on childcare, according to the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks global trends. But the cost varies: In countries like Sweden and Spain, the out-of-pocket expense is as low as 4 percent of income; in France, the government subsidizes daycare, and nursery school is free.
Changing the American dynamic of expensive care and poorly-paid workers is “absolutely doable,” Kurtz says. ”It starts with reprioritization of what we feel is important culturally,” including moving the childcare issue to the top of the national to-do list.
For Carmouche, the childcare supervisor in Louisiana, the situation has become a vicious cycle: The cost of daycare is so high, and the pay for providing it is so low, that only middle- and upper-income earners can afford a service experts say is critical to helping families escape poverty. And skilled daycare workers who have career options usually don’t stay for long.
“I had a lady who left work at ECDC who was working [here] for $7.25 an hour. She left us and worked at a Head Start [preschool program] that’s publicly funded and she makes $14 an hour,” Carmouche says. “She makes more than me. It blows my mind.”
And the fact that there aren’t viable solutions on the table like government subsidies, or wage hikes for workers and nationwide standards, speaks volumes about our society and what it deems important, she says, noting what happened when she tried to get higher-income parents with children at the center to support a protest at the state capitol. .
“We sent out letters: ‘If anybody wants to come and participate and write letters [to lawmakers] it would be appreciated,’” Carmouche says. “Our private parents were, like, ‘Why? It doesn't affect me at all so I don’t really care.’ But it affects everybody else.”
“We’re all people. You should care about your fellow human being,” she adds. “The more you can help [improve] child care, the more people who can get up and get out and work.”
“When I was growing up it was, ‘Oh, my God — Sally’s house burned down. Let’s chip in and buy her a new house,’” she says. “Now it’s, ‘Sally’s house burned down? Sucks for her. Let’s go to the movies.”
This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.