By Airman 1st Class Hunter Brady ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

July 12, 2016; New York Times

Andy Schmidt’s recent article for NPQ, “Is Exploiting Workers Key to Your Enterprise Model,” addressed the impending new overtime requirements and their impact on nonprofits. This extends that question a bit to address the problem of fields in the sector with low-wage workers.

The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley recently unveiled the Early Childhood Workforce Index, a state-by-state comparison and interactive map of the compensation paid to early childcare workers. It reveals something of a national wage ghetto.

Early educators are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. The median hourly wages for child care workers range from $8.72 in Mississippi to $12.24 in New York. Nationwide, the median wage is $9.77. Preschool teachers fare somewhat better: wages range from $10.54 in Idaho to $19.21 in Louisiana. In contrast, the median national wage for kindergarten teachers is $24.83.

Nearly one-half of childcare workers (46 percent), compared to 26 percent of the U.S. workforce, are part of families that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps.

Marcy Whitebook, the author of the report and director of the Center, says there are approximately two million people in that workforce, caring for 12 million children up to five years old. But, she says, they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, often receiving only slightly above minimum wage, few benefits, and scattershot training. On top of that, they must observe complicated regulatory requirements that can vary from one program to the next.

The researchers say this combination of stresses is ultimately bad for the children:

Adults who are underinformed, underprepared, or subject to chronic stress themselves may contribute to children’s experiences of adversity and stress and undermine their development and learning.

The New York Times cites the case of Carmella Salinas, who has worked in the field in New Mexico for 14 years. Not only does Salinas earn just $12.89 an hour, but she is not allowed to work more than 32 hours each week. This keeps her off the nonprofit’s benefits plan. Salinas, along with countless other nonprofit workers is faced with impossible choices. An asthma sufferer, she tried to get a second job, but the extra income disqualified her family for food stamps and Medicaid, making the decision a precarious one.

“I was hospitalized last year from complications from asthma,” she said. “I was rationing the medication. I am supposed to have four puffs, but I would think, ‘Can I get by with one?’”

Salinas is working toward her bachelor’s degree, taking weekend and evening classes. Increased professional training often brings with it higher salaries. More education can lead to higher wages on a case-by-case basis, but experts disagree on the proposition that such education is necessary and whether the field can make higher salaries work at the scale being advocated.

Whitebook says, “We need to raise the floor so people are making a living wage.” On the other hand, Katharine Stevens, an education policy researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, shares the belief that childcare workers deserve more than poverty-level wages but thinks that paying them more would lead to child care becoming more expensive and less accessible.

The report, however, observes that initiatives meant to expand childcare have come at the expense of the poorly paid women who do the work. “A major goal of early childhood services has been to relieve poverty among children, yet many of these same efforts continue to generate poverty in the predominantly female, ethnically and racially diverse early-childhood-education workforce.”—Ruth McCambridge