Tiny Crayons & Big Promises: What is Next for Early Care Provider Compensation in the U.S.?

Society’s youngest members have received some pretty big mentions recently—and for good reason. The United States isn’t heading into a childcare crisis any longer; it is fully in it. The already struggling industry was hit especially hard by the pandemic and has impacted families across the nation. The childcare crisis is so pervasive that President Biden prioritized childcare and prekindergarten stating, “if you want America to have the best-educated workforce, let’s finish the job by providing access to preschool” in his State of the Union address.

In the audience, several U.S. Representatives brought individuals directly impacted by the childcare crisis as their guests of honor. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts brought Eugénie Ouedraogo, a mom and nursing student who depends on access to affordable early care and education. Senator Patty Murray of Washington brought Angélica María González, a mother who experienced firsthand the lack or quality care for her children and a Moms Rising advocate. Senator Murray took her statement of support beyond who was sitting with her to what she was wearing. Senator Murray organized Democrats in the House and Senate to wear pins in the shape of tiny crayons to signal support for childcare funding, as President Biden proposed at the beginning of his administration. In an analysis of the State of the State addresses given by governors, First Five Years Fund found that the childcare crisis was an important issue on both sides of the aisle, with 40 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats talking about it. However, of the governors who specifically mentioned early childhood education as a priority for their states, only one in four governors referenced the childcare workforce and the struggle to find, recruit and retain workers. While these are exciting developments (especially in contrast to Donald Trump’s one 16-word sentence in his State of the Union in 2019) why is so little of the conversation centered around the early care workforce? The priority seems to be getting parents with young children back to work with affordable childcare.

Often the “afterthought” sector of the education discussion, it was nice to see early care gain the recognition it deserves for its crucial role—not only to children’s development, but to the stability of the U.S. economy. The early childhood field is having it’s moment, but it is essential to take this moment to ask some important yet difficult questions. As big announcements promising investment begin to trickle in on our media sources and exciting positive trends are shared, let’s also consider asking some difficult yet essential questions:

  • What are the consequences of an absent or unstable early care workforce?
  • Why is there such instability in the early care provider workforce?
  • And finally, what can be done to address the mass exodus from the early care provider workforce?

The question of what the consequences of an absent or unstable early care workforce never really needed to be central to the U.S. economy until recently. There were always individuals to wipe tables and noses while others went off to their 9-5 jobs. This all changed during COVID-19; the tables needed even more diligent wiping, the noses that needed wiping could hold enough of a viral load to land you in the hospital or worse, and many of the 9-5 jobs could be done from home. Being an early childhood teacher is a stressful job, as is, but adding on to the layer of potentially getting a child you care for and their family members very sick is a lot to ask of someone—especially someone who usually makes little more than minimum wage. Early care providers left—and rightfully so. They made the best choices for themselves, their health and their families. And from their absences, there finally seems to be a growing understanding of the importance of early learning and development. Even babies and young children who were not yet born (and some who were not even a thought in their parents’ minds yet during that fateful week in March 2020) are still suffering the repercussions from the very necessary measures taken to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Some of the reasons why? Babies and young children experienced secondhand stress from the pandemic and experienced social isolation. They also missed out on important opportunities to socialize, hit developmental milestones with the modeling, support and guidance from early care professionals. Simply put, healthy socio-emotional, language, cognitive and physical child development comes from sustained and warm caregiver interactions. With early childhood education centers and home-care providers closing their doors during COVID-19, babies and young children missed out on these opportunities. Then, when centers and providers were able to re-open, there were continued disruptions and inconsistencies in care after exposures and confirmed positive cases, and in some instances care providers opting to change professions entirely. The full impact of these disruptions on the development of young children could take years of research to fully assess.

As alluded to previously, it is important to note that the lack of investment in early care providers is nothing new. At no other time in our nation’s history has it been so abundantly clear that having a high-quality, racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, and reliable childcare system is essential for a thriving economy. Yet, our society continues to undervalue the early childhood workforce (a workforce where women and women of color are overrepresented) who earn unequal pay for comparable work as other types of educators. Despite over thirty years of research, advocates have had limited success in improving early educators’ status, income, and benefits. The pandemic brought it to the level of a crisis that is only now being recognized. Personally, I believe much of the early care provider shortage is rooted in the systematic devaluation of “women’s work,”… but that is a whole other blog post on its own. This form of sexism rears its’ ugly head in the form of low wages that do not reflect the labor-intensive and emotionally demanding nature of the work, the lack of meaningful professional development, the lack of continuing educational opportunities for career growth, the lack of resources for solid coaching and strong leadership, and the little to no benefits or job perks offered with compensation packages. What might the field look like if we could give early care providers what they need not just to survive but thrive?

  • There is no reason why the educator who taught your child how to eat with a fork and spoon should go hungry.
  • There is no reason the educator your child runs to after a boo-boo for a band-aid and some TLC should be without access to quality and affordable health insurance.
  • There is no reason why the educator who reads stories and teaches your child everything from being a good friend to their numbers, colors, shapes, and letters should go without the opportunity to continue or complete an education for themselves.

We can do better for this vital workforce… we need to do better. If children are our future, why aren’t we caring for their teachers now? Hasn’t there been enough research combined with our own lived experiences in the past three years to recognize this? Public investment, in more than just funding dollars, is necessary to save the early childhood field—but funding dollars might be a good place to start.

To see what, if any, public investment is happening, I decided to examine Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. is not only where the State of the Union occurs and the U.S. Representatives who all claim to want to fix the childcare crisis for the constituents of their respective states, but it is also where I was once an early care provider myself. I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that D.C. is actually “putting their money where their mouth is”—an impressive $54 million dollars set aside from the city’s budget to be exact—thanks to the Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force Temporary Amendment Act. This Act aims to address the salary disparity among early care providers and D.C. Public School teachers. The Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force Temporary Amendment Act consists of two mechanisms and timelines for increasing early-care providers’ compensation. For the short-term mechanism, OSSE (DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education) is partnering with AidKit to disperse direct supplemental payments ranging from $5,000-$14,000 to staff members of licensed childcare facilities who meet specific employment criteria, should they choose to apply.

For the long-term mechanism, they are developing ways to increase base salaries and benefits for early care providers that are aligned with the pay scale structures for D.C. Public School teachers. From its’ conception, the Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force sought to “disrupt the systemic inequities currently at play in the District’s childcare sector.” The Task Force was comprised of fourteen individuals with various experiences and perspectives to offer expert input that helped to craft the policy. From their very first meeting they were able to accurately pinpoint a huge issue for early care providers resulting in talented, passionate, and knowledgeable individuals leaving the field. Through a series of meetings, the Task Force crafted a policy that was introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson on February 17, 2022. This Act is a step in the right direction in terms of productive policies to incentivize care providers to stay and show how Washingtonians value their invaluable work. What are other states or territories doing to ensure this essential group of workers can make enough income to care for themselves and their families? I encourage you to take a lesson from toddlers here—ask as many questions as you possibly can. Ask your elected officials about their plan to ensure equitable compensation. Early care providers should no longer have to earn minimum wage for their maximum contributions to our society and our children’s healthy development.