The XX Factor

Child Care Is Crazy Expensive, but Child Care Workers Still Can’t Make Ends Meet

One of society’s most important jobs is also one of the least well-paid.

Last month, the Economic Policy Institute told us that child care costs are more than rent in many U.S. cities and more than in-state college tuition in others. In its latest report, a study on the wages of U.S. child care workers, the EPI follows up with the understatement of the year: “The unaffordability of child care is not driven by excessively lavish pay in the sector.”

In fact, in most cities and regions in the country, more than 90 percent of child care workers (excluding preschool teachers) don’t make enough money to achieve a “modest yet adequate living standard” for one person where they live, a standard drawn by the EPI’s family budget calculator. Child care workers who support other family members have it even tougher, which is one reason why 1 in 7 live below the poverty line and nearly half use one or more public support programs to make ends meet, compared with just a quarter of the total workforce.

Across the country, the median hourly wage for child care workers is $10.31, compared with $17 in all other lines of work. Study author Elise Gould points out that 95.6 percent of the country’s 1.2 million child care workers are women, and a disproportionate number are immigrants and people of color, which would make them more likely to earn lower-than-average wages in any other job, too. But even when Gould controlled for demographic disadvantages, she found that the hourly wages of child care workers were 23 percent lower than those in other occupations.

The worst wages-to–cost of living ratio in the U.S. for child care workers who aren’t preschool teachers is in Honolulu, where a full-time worker will only make 39 percent of a one-person family’s basic budget. The best is in rural Nevada, where she’ll make just about enough to make ends meet: 104 percent of the basic budget for the region. And the actual picture could be even grimmer: Gould notes that the study has probably overestimated child care wages, because data on self-employed workers, including those who provide care in their own homes, are unavailable. This population makes up nearly a quarter of all child care workers and is likely to earn lower wages than the rest.

When you consider the compounding effects of skyrocketing child care costs and meager child care worker wages, it’s clear that parents who work in the industry are getting doubly screwed. The Department of Health and Human Services sets the threshold for affordable child care at a laughable 10 percent of a family’s income. The wages of an average child care worker, including higher-paid preschool teachers, are not enough to meet that standard anywhere in the country. Washington, D.C., has the highest average child care costs ($1,472 per month), meaning a D.C. preschool teacher with an infant will spend 66 percent of her income on child care. For non-preschool child care workers in 21 states and D.C., it takes more than half of a year’s full-time wages to put one infant in a day care center.

Making child care more affordable is an economic quandary for the business world. “In the child care sector—unlike in other sectors—it is impossible to improve productivity (and hence decrease costs) without lowering quality,” writes Gould. Increase the child-to-caregiver ratio, and kids suffer. Child care workers are already earning far less than other workers—poverty wages, in many cases—for doing one of the most important, taxing jobs out there. It’ll take the concerted action of both private employers and government entities to fix this tightening double-bind.