The High Cost Of Caring

The field of early childhood education (ECE) is riddled with contradictions. Bluntly, when those we love the most—our children—are at the most consequential stage of their cognitive, social, and emotional development, we leave them in the hands of the people we pay the least. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, childcare workers earn about 4 percent less than animal caretakers—$20,940 and $21,830 per year, respectively.

I am far from the first to make this embarrassing comparison; more than a decade ago, Marci Whitebook provided an extensive overview. Unfortunately, the comparisons still hold.

Over the intervening years, there have been many determined efforts to regulate and improve the working conditions of early childhood educators, including raising the qualifications and wages for the profession. Indeed, the demand for worthy salaries is often discussed in combination with workforce development efforts. In other words, we want early childhood workers to be both better trained and better paid. While this may seem to be a perfectly reasonable approach, it suggests that the low wages are a result of inadequate qualifications. Perhaps. But I believe that this obscures another important explanation for these workers’ persistently meager pay.

Consider a recent policy brief by the non-profit Zero to Three foundation. It accurately describes the situation, explaining that “among childcare providers, wages are strikingly low and benefits limited or nonexistent, making it difficult to attract well-educated staff and leading to high turnover rates." It also offers several key recommendations, one of which focuses on increased investment in professional development systems to provide incentives for greater compensation, educational attainment, and retention of ECE workers. At the same time, however, it also acknowledges that, while states are slowly beginning to raise education requirements, compensation still lags behind.

In other words, professional qualifications and compensation are only loosely related in the ECE field. So what’s really going on here? Why do ECE workers make so little?

One key reason is that, even the most advanced 21st century societies, the work done by women is still devalued. There is broad base of social science research to support this claim. For example, recent work by Stanford University scholars Levanon, England, and Allison (2009) examined why jobs held by a greater proportion of women pay less. Their analysis demonstrates that the proportion of females in an occupation affects pay because women’s work is undervalued.

Social psychology experiments (and here) have shown that a job or task, when labeled feminine, is regarded as requiring less effort and ability—and as deserving less compensation—than the identical job or task, when labeled masculine. Other evidence (and here) shows that the gender composition of a job alone and/or the association of the job with stereotypically female skills (e.g., nurturance) have a significant impact on wages.

Two studies (also here) with nationally representative data have shown that, controlling for education, experience, and other factors, the extent to which a job requires nurturance is a significant negative predictor of its wages. This is not just a side effect of women’s lower status and greater likelihood of working in roles that require nurturance—nurturance remains a significant predictor of lower wages, even when controlling for the sex of the jobholder. Thus, even when men hold nurturing jobs, their wages are lower than they would be in comparable, but less nurturing, occupations.

These findings suggest that ECE workers’ core tasks—nurturing and caring—are devalued in contemporary society (and that this devaluation is distinct from that associated with gender, per se). Unconscious beliefs like this can take a long time to change, which helps explain why, despite important efforts advocating for worthy wages for ECE workers, improvements have been slow in coming.

Deep down, we don’t really believe that nannies, babysitters, and childcare workers deserve that much. As Whitebook said in Childcare Workers: High Demands Low Wages, “our nation has adopted a child care policy that relies on an unacknowledged subsidy: the contribution that child care workers make by being paid much less than the value of their skilled and vital work." Yet, none of this is surprising in the sense that raising children historically has been done by mothers for free. Truthfully, society as a whole is still indebted to the free work of mothers.

Raising the bar on the qualifications of early childhood educators doesn’t automatically lead to increased wages. Nor will offering higher wages automatically improve the caliber or qualifications of those entering the field—because the reason why these workers are poorly paid is only partially related to training and qualifications. The truth is that we perceive the caring professions to be women’s work, and both caring and women are devalued in our society.

If we want to promote lasting change in the field of early childhood education, the issue of low wages needs to be tackled at its root. Yes, we need a workforce that is well trained and well educated. But we need to see the value in the nurturance of children, in all of the various aspects that cognitive science tells us are so vital to their future wellbeing and success. After all, early childhood educators do so much more than feed, care for, and watch out that our youngsters don’t get into trouble. As University of Michigan Professor David K. Cohen puts it in a forthcoming book, educators “work directly on other humans in efforts to better their minds, lives, work, and organizations." Education is the endeavor of human improvement—what skills does that really require and how much should those skills be worth?

- Esther Quintero