DoD Photo by Dave Clemens.

September 17, 2018; WBUR-FM, “Edify”

Usually, a doctor can afford medical care. In general, a lawyer can afford legal assistance when it’s needed. Even a teacher can afford a child’s education—through the public schools, if nothing else. But what about a childcare worker? As Carrie Jung points out for a segment on Boston’s public radio station, WBUR, more often than not, the typical childcare worker finds it hard to pay for early childhood care. NPQ started writing about wage ghettos in the nonprofit sector a few years ago and we counted early childcare among the fields with low wages, hours, and benefits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also a field where women workers predominate.

When the economics of an entire field is depressed and based on low-wage assumptions, it takes a variety of strategies to change that. Some groups end up simply competing for workers in the operating environment—the economy—that is provided for them. Bright Horizons Family Solutions, for instance, has started offering to cover the cost of continuing education for their workers, a long-recognized need for stability and growth in these jobs. but before nonprofits go running to match this offer, it’s worth taking a step back to look at it.

Running a quality daycare comes with some significant costs. Salaries and fixed costs, such as facility, maintenance, materials, and other expenses add up quickly. Owners say that they cannot offset those expenses by simply recruiting more children. Particularly at younger ages, a low child-to-caregiver ratio is not only desirable, but sometimes mandated. Plus, there is a limit to what parents can pay, so they cannot simply raise the already high tuition costs. (In Massachusetts, a year of childcare tuition runs around $17,000. That’s more than half a year’s wages for a full-time caregiver earning the average rate of $14 an hour.)

Plus, remember that worker who said she plans to stay at Bright Futures? She also plans to leave once she earns that degree. As a kindergarten teacher, she could earn $8,000 more than her current annual salary. So, in effect, Bright Futures is paying for her to leave their employ.

Michele Rivest, director of the North Carolina Childcare Coalition, has been quoted as saying the issue is all about low wages. It is hard to retain existing workers or to fill the pipeline with new ones when the pay is so low. It’s not just the benefits; it’s the basics of a good pay scale.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman argues that the benefits of strong early childhood education include many long-term cost savings for society as a whole, including a lower prison population. If we estimate those savings and invest those savings to provide public sector funding, then we could raise the salaries of these critical workers now relegated to one of the nonprofit sector’s wage ghettos to provide the quality care and early childhood education that our children need.—Rob Meiksins