DONISE KELLER HAS made many sacrifices in 20 years as a child care provider, but she has rarely questioned her calling. She puts in 12-hour days. She gets by on less than $20,000 a year. She worries about getting COVID on the job. But, despite it all, she says she loves what she does.

“Children are our most precious gifts. I feel honored to help take care of them and help them grow. It’s a labor of love,” said the 53-year-old single mother who lives in Antioch. “I am compensated, it’s just not in money.”

Her struggles are typical of child care workers, predominantly women of color, who have long been among the lowest-paid workers in the country, experts say. The median hourly pay for a California child care worker in 2019 was $13.43, while preschool teachers earned $16.83 and kindergarten teachers earned $41.86, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley. About a third of all child care workers are on some kind of public assistance, the study found.

“We’ve been fighting this battle since the ’70s,” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, executive director of BAHIA, which provides bilingual child care and education in Berkeley. “We’ve marched and we’ve protested and we’ve fought. It feels like we’ve been fighting this battle forever.”

Over the years, Keller has gone without health insurance, losing a tooth because she couldn’t afford dental care. She has given up on owning a home. She knows how to make do, but the future still frightens her.

“It’s frustrating. You do what you have to do, but it shouldn’t be this much of a struggle to take care of children. It’s really hard,” said Keller, who has an associate degree in child development. “I have no retirement plan. Will I have to do this even when I’m too old to do this? What will my quality of life be when I’m older?”

Complicated by COVID

The pandemic has only worsened matters, driving many to leave the field of education in search of higher wages in the fast-food industry or retail sector. Those who stick to child care despite the obstacles often feel crushed by their circumstances. The depth of frustration they grapple with alarmed the researchers from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

“I would say we expected, knowing what we know about low wages, that their economic well-being would not look great,” said Anna Powell, a senior research and policy associate at the center, who worked on a new report about the state of the child care workforce. “However, what I was really not prepared for was the outpouring of frustration. And even in some cases, despair. Educators were telling us about their precarious financial situation. They feel trapped in this cycle of low pay. They feel overlooked and forgotten.”

Hunger has emerged as a key issue. Of the roughly 1 million child care workers in the country, research shows1 out of 3 experienced food insecurity in 2020. Experts say this rate of food insecurity, which means there is a lack of consistent access to food, is about 8 to 20 percentage points higher than the national average.

“If you want a stable community of teachers, teachers who know the children and know the families, you’ve got to treat them well, or you’ll have high turnover,” Leyva-Cutler said. “You have to take good care of your teachers if you want them to take good care of your children.” 

“Children don’t magically start learning at age 4. You have to plant the seeds much earlier. If you undermine the early years, you pay the price.”

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, BAHIA executive director

Another critical issue may be that many people do not realize that child care workers are more than babysitters, advocates say. They are early childhood educators at a pivotal period of learning that is dependent on quality interactions with caring adults. 

“Child care is undervalued and underpaid because we don’t appreciate how important the early years are to a child’s whole education,” Leyva-Cutler said. “Children don’t magically start learning at age 4. You have to plant the seeds much earlier. If you undermine the early years, you pay the price.”

If child care workers are beaten down by the grim realities of poverty, from hunger to stress, advocates say, they are less likely to be nurturing to the children in their care. 

“People do not live siloed lives,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a research and advocacy group. “It’s natural for the stress we are feeling at home to impact how we show up at work. We are asking child care workers to be superheroes when we expect them to be at the top of their game caring for our children while they are stressed about keeping the lights on and having food on the table for their own families.”

Limited window of opportunity

That’s particularly troubling, experts say, because the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are often referred to as the brain’s window of opportunity. The most explosive growth happens early, with the brain doubling in size in the first year. It’s a time of great promise but also great risk, when the architecture of the developing brain is under construction. That vulnerability has only been heightened by the pandemic, which has strained many caregivers to the breaking point. 

“The brain’s adaptive plasticity” is a double-edged sword, according to a recent Children Now report. “While positive and enriching environments can promote healthy brain development, neglect, insecurity, stress, and lack of stimulation can impair maturing brain systems and disrupt cognitive and behavioral outcomes.”

Stress can be infectious. An overwhelmed caregiver may struggle with focusing on the needs of children. They might lack patience or empathy, both of which are crucial in educators. That means children can be directly affected by the pressures facing child care providers. 

“Children with fragile home environments often see their child care site as a sanctuary,”  said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, a resource and referral agency. “Disruptions to the kids’ daily routines and adapting to new caregivers, who themselves are under an enormous amount of stress, all add up to traumatic experiences that could impact children for the rest of their lives.” 

Keller, for her part, finds deep satisfaction in her work that helps her stay engaged with the 10 children she cares for, ages 8 months to 8 years, every day. She enjoys teaching them things, taking particular pride in those she has taught how to read, for example.

“You don’t do this job for the money,” she said. 

A devalued profession

A fierce devotion to the craft is something many child care providers share, but it is rarely reflected in their economic prospects. The dismally low wages for care work, advocates say, might reflect a systemic lack of respect for what is traditionally seen as women’s work.

Domestic and care work is what we forced Black women to do during slavery, and they continue to be overrepresented in that occupation today,” Bhattacharya said. “Given our racial history, along with the ways in which patriarchal thinking is still pervasive in our society, we continue to devalue child care.” 

The pandemic has shined a harsh light on many such issues of race, gender and equity, advocates say. Certainly, the public health crisis has thrust the child care crisis into the national discourse, a fact that gives some advocates hope that change may finally be on the horizon. 

“Over the past two years, the nation has seen firsthand what we in the early education field have been saying for decades: child care is a critical linchpin to our children, working families and to our economy,” Fromer said. “In effect, COVID has revealed a deeply flawed, highly fragile child care infrastructure that has existed for decades — a system that does not uplift women and exacerbates racism in the workforce.”

President Joe Biden has been pushing for a plan to bolster the beleaguered child care sector as part of his social spending package. That proposal, which is currently languishing in Congress, calls for increased pay and training opportunities for child care staff, in addition to more affordable fees for families.

The U.S. currently ranks 35th out of 37 major economies in public investment in young children, as the president has pointed out, and most advanced countries spend an average of $14,000 per year for a toddler’s child care, compared with roughly $500 in the United States. It’s often left up to the women of the child care workforce, advocates say, to bear the brunt of that inequity.

“We fail to see the humanity of the folks doing this work,” Bhattacharya said. “This is absolutely why we pay them very little, offer little in benefits, and think anyone can do it.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.