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Why so many professional caregivers can’t afford reliable care for their own children

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Whether educating kids, serving the public in the food service industry, or caring for sick or injured people at hospitals, clinics, and senior centers, the majority of workers in caregiving jobs are women. Yet median wages in those industries don’t always cover the basic costs of caring for one’s own family.

Child care workers struggling to make ends meet

Early childhood educators are 97 percent women, and their wages remain appallingly low, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). The average wage for full-time teachers in child care centers across the United States is just $14.01 an hour, even though it is an essential and highly skilled job that usually requires specialized knowledge in child development and early education.

For daycare teachers who work with infants and toddlers, this national average is even lower, at $10.86 per hour. And in fact, when inflation is taken into account, early childhood educators’ real wages have dropped 6.5 percent in the 7 years that have passed since the previous CAP report.

This pattern has not only fueled daycare staff shortages and a full-blown child care crisis, but it also means that many child care workers who choose to stay in the industry are living close to the poverty line, struggling to care for their own families. This stress leads to burnout among child care workers.

According to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, 53 percent of child care workers or their family members were enrolled in at least one government assistance program (versus 21 percent of the entire U.S. workforce). The Hechinger Report found that 44 percent of teachers at child care centers experienced hunger during the pandemic, and that one in four child care workers held multiple jobs to make things work financially.

Caregivers can’t afford care for their own children

The majority of employees in caregiving industries in general, including child care, elder care, education, and healthcare, are women. But the reality is that too many of them can’t afford the child care necessary for them to do those jobs in the first place, says a 2019 report by the CAP.

CAP reports that the median salary for a K-12 teacher, for example, is $41,000, yet the annual cost of child care is about $10,000 per child — that’s a quarter of a teacher’s salary. In the food industry, where Hispanic mothers in particular are overrepresented, the median wage is only $15,000. Finding decent child care would mean giving up two-thirds of that salary. 

These industries are the hardworking engines of U.S. communities, providing care and education as vital services. Yet they tend to pay low wages, have notable gender and racial wage gaps, and require hours that aren’t conducive to traditional child care schedules. Finding child care arrangements that work in these situations can be next to impossible for some working parents, and even when they’re found, they’re often wildly expensive.  

The high cost of quality child care also limits the work options available to working parents, especially mothers of infants and very young children. As a result, many will need to leave the paid workforce altogether after having kids, which affects not only the country’s economic growth but the wellbeing of its families, too. 

Hospitals have been citing challenges retaining nurses, another essential caregiving job that’s held overwhelmingly by women. One solution that seems to help with retention is to provide on-site child care as a benefit to hospital employees. But that’s not feasible for many employers.

Far from one individual’s, family’s, or employer’s problem, the data underscores how universal access to quality child care is vital to the public as a whole. After all, parents can only afford to participate in the paid labor force if they have the financial means to cover reliable child care. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.