A young, Black childcare worker standing among a group of small children in a preschool classroom. She is offering a high-five to one of the children.
Image Credit: Drazen Zigic on istock.com

Three years after the initial upheaval caused by the pandemic, families across the country continue to struggle to find affordable care for their children, and childcare facilities struggle to find and retain employees. In a 2021 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 36 percent of adults in households with children reported “serious problems meeting both their work and family responsibilities in the past few months.”

“In 34 states and Washington, D.C., the average cost of childcare at a daycare center is more than in-state public college tuition.” 

While this poll was conducted within the first year of the pandemic, with the added stressors of some daycare centers closed and schools remote, the childcare crisis is nothing new, and shows no sign of slowing down. The 19th wrote in 2023, “Nearly one in 4 parents reported last year being fired from their jobs due to the continuing breakdown of childcare for their kids.”

Childcare is prohibitively expensive for many families, with some parents unable to work enough to afford the costs. The US Department of Labor, utilizing available data from 2018 and adjusting it for inflation, found annual childcare costs for one child ranging from “$4,810 ($5,357 in 2022 dollars) for school-age home-based care in small counties to $15,417 ($17,171 in 2022 dollars) for infant center-based care in very large counties.”

As The 19th described it: “In 34 states and Washington, D.C., the average cost of childcare at a daycare center is more than in-state public college tuition.”

“[P]retty soon you’re paying more toward child care than a mortgage, and that’s less than ideal,” said one parent interviewed by CNN, who wished to have a second child but worried the additional cost of care was insurmountable.

Part of what’s driving the high price of childcare is a lack of qualified providers. Childcare as an industry is heavily regulated with, as journalist Claire Suddath described to NPR, “fire safety codes, CPR requirements, square footage requirements.”

Childcare facilities also must have a high number of staffers per child. The federal government recommends at least one educator per three to four infants for safe, quality care. “And that’s solely because they have to,” Suddath said. “Babies need constant supervision and attention. When they’re newborns, they nap four times a day, they eat every two hours. You have to swaddle them, you have to hold them all the time.” But for the amount of work and regulation required, childcare as a profession is not compensated adequately with livable wages.

Virginia’s Answer

In Virginia, one nonprofit is addressing the childcare crisis in the state by launching an initiative devoted to training future providers—and paying them higher wages than average.

“There are not many careers where you’re holding the future in your hands.”

The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation announced it will provide paid training to over 60 early childhood educators in their Early Educator Fast Track Initiative. After completing the program, workers will be hired at $17 per hour with monetary bonuses after six months on the job and again after one year. The foundation has partnered with multiple daycare centers in the state to hire their trainees for positions and will serve the Virginia communities of Chesterfield, Glen Allen, Henrico, and Richmond.

The new program is open to anyone with a high school diploma or an equivalent who passes a background check and can commit to at least one year of employment. Karin Bowles, vice president of strategy at the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, told Axios that retirees would be excellent candidates for the initiative, as would food industry or home care workers, or anyone desiring to find a second career where they might make a difference. “There are not many careers where you’re holding the future in your hands,” she said.

The Pay Crisis

Despite the value of the work that childcare providers do, their labor has not been compensated proportionately. The Center for American Progress wrote in a 2021 report, “Parents who spend thousands of dollars each year on child care are often surprised to hear that their children’s teachers make poverty-level wages.” As the Atlantic reported in 2023, “many child-care workers make less than parking attendants.”

The median pay for a childcare worker nationally was $13.11 in 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2015 report found nearly 15 percent of childcare workers live in poverty, a rate more than double that of other jobs. In the eight years since, we’ve made little progress in offering better pay to these workers, 94 percent of whom are female.

According to the 2022 report Equity in Child Care is Everyone’s Business from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and The Education Trust, 40 percent of childcare workers are people of color. “They do the critical work of supporting our nation’s working parents and youngest learners, while shouldering the added burdens of systemic, historical, and institutionalized racism and sexism.”

Workers at childcare facilities also rarely receive health insurance benefits. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute, “Just 15.0 percent of childcare workers have employer-sponsored health insurance through their own job, compared with 49.9 percent of workers in other occupations.” This can lead to high turnover among employees, as well as increased illnesses, due to a lack of preventative care and feelings of demoralization.

How can childcare be so expensive, while the workers are paid so poorly? Where does the money go, if not to employees? Childcare facilities may face high insurance, loan payments, and operating costs. They have to pay for utilities, cleaning supplies, bedding, toys, educational materials, and groceries, often making lunch and meals for children, and offering milk. That all adds up.

Last fall, more than half of the childcare facilities in Virginia had to turn away children due to a lack of staff.

Impacting Workers and Families

Last fall, more than half of the childcare facilities in Virginia had to turn away children due to a lack of staff. Facilities in the state that accept subsidies and serve lower-income families turned away even more children: 63 percent of those providers were full. “The staffing short[age] has gotten dire,” Bowles told Axios.

The Fast Track Initiative intends to relieve the burden somewhat on both families and workers by providing incentives for someone to choose a childcare career path, a path that historically has not been clear, supported, or easy. Childcare worker Kelsey Andersen told NPR, her facility spends nearly everything they earn each month. “And a lot of times, we won’t have anything left over,” she said.

Through grants and federal funding, the new initiative in Virginia hopes to make childcare more possible for providers and for families. As the website for the program states, “It’s not just a job. It’s our future.”