Our children are the most precious, most defenseless among us, and yet in North Carolina and elsewhere, those to whom we entrust our children are being paid shamefully low wages.
And this is at a time when child care workers are better educated and facing more responsibilities – and sometimes more complicated challenges with children – than ever before.
It’s past time for state and local officials to recognize there is a growing problem here. They will have to do something about it by finding ways to boost pay for those who take care of children. Absent action, quality workers are going to be hard if not impossible to find. Child care centers will have to hire underqualified and undereducated people, and some already do.
The pay problem with these workers is similar to that with public school teachers. Yes, the General Assembly provided a raise for some, though it was less generous to experienced teachers, but this didn’t happen until North Carolina had fallen to the near-bottom in teacher pay.
Public distress over that ranking, and an election year, spurred lawmakers to do something.
But consider the circumstances of these child care workers.
Less than 15 years ago
A report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, offers disheartening information.
Almost half of child care workers nationwide need Medicaid or food stamps or another public benefit program, or qualified for the earned income tax credit in 2012.
And in North Carolina, child care workers and kindergarten teachers make less in real dollars than they did 15 years ago. The actual mean hourly wage for North Carolina child care workers in 2013 was $9.57. In 1997, the mean wage in 2013 dollars was $9.71.
Even considering the national stagnation of wages in almost all industries, the situation with child care workers is appalling because their pay wasn’t a victim of the Great Recession; it has been low for far longer.
No babysitting service
There’s also a maddening irony here. Pay has continued to be low even as child care workers have improved their qualifications. Nearly half of them have at least associates degrees, a percentage more than double that of roughly a decade ago. That’s from Child Care Services, an agency with offices in Chapel Hill and Durham.
Marcy Whitebook, who helped to write the report, makes another important point. It’s wrong, she says, to think of today’s child care as a babysitting service. Indeed, child care workers need, and many have, training that enables them to deal with a broad range of challenges children bring with them. Some have behavioral problems. Others are on medications. Still others need special attention or help with rudimentary tasks.
What many child care workers are asked to do as part of their duties goes beyond reading stories and handing out snacks.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, in forming his “Smart Start” program, recognized the importance of early childhood education, as did former Gov. Mike Easley with “More at Four.” Child care may not be thought of as an “educational” component, but in some ways it is, depending upon services available and offered.
The Berkeley report calls for “a dedicated source of public funds” to help with salaries and to raise standards for child care teachers. That’s necessary, of course, and never more so than in an era of two-working-parent families who depend upon high-quality child care.
North Carolina officials, including leaders of the General Assembly, didn’t need this report to know there is a crisis, and a growing one. They shouldn’t wait to take action by finding funding sources to improve child care.