Child-Care Pay, Child-Care Quality

Higher quality of early education and child care will require a better-paid and better-qualified work force. Making progress in these areas is also a matter of economic justice and of employment equality for the overwhelmingly female child-care work force.

The estimated 2.5 million adults who are paid to care for children are among the lowest earners in the U.S. According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Center for the Child Care Workforce, the average annual income of workers in child-care centers was just more than $18,000 in 2004 -- nearly $27,000 less than kindergarten teachers, and some $35,550 less than flight attendants. The estimated 76 percent of all paid child-care providers who work in homes earn even less than those who work in centers.

Paid child care has increased steadily in recent decades. Between 1985 and 1999, the percentage of all families with employed mothers who paid for care for their children (from birth to age 14) grew from 34 percent to 43 percent. Yet the wages of child-care workers increased by an anemic 3.23 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1999 and 2004.

Why are child-care workers faring so poorly when their services are in such high demand? Mainly because most care is paid for by families -- and those in greatest need have the most meager resources. Although federal, state, and local government expenditures for child-care assistance are now estimated to exceed $20 billion annually, most of this assistance is provided through means-tested subsidies received by only a fraction of low-income working families, or through modest federal and state tax credits for out-of-pocket expenditures. So parents and other family members continue to pay most of the costs of care.

Our recent study of child-care costs in New York City -- which has one of the most extensive systems of public child-care provision in the country -- found that 80 percent of families used some form of paid care. But only about one-quarter received any assistance through subsidies, tax credits, or enrollment of children in public preschool programs.

Child-care workers in some parts of the country, most recently in New York City, have successfully organized to bargain for higher wages. These efforts have been most successful, however, when the employers have been public programs or large child-care centers that can charge relatively high fees to at least some families. But absent a national commitment, the prospects are dim for dramatically increasing compensation.

The best models are provided by countries of Northern Europe with extensive public child-care systems. Sweden and Denmark, for example, serve half of 1-year-old and 2-year-old children, and nearly all of those between 3 years and 5 years of age, with comprehensive "educare" programs that stress child development, not just baby-sitting. Belgium and France provide another model, with more limited care for the youngest children but nearly universal enrollment of children from the ages of 2 and a half to 3 in the public ├ęcole maternelle.

These Northern European governments pay most of the costs of their child-care programs, with sliding-scale parental contributions averaging about 15 percent for some services. The burden on parents is far smaller in these countries, and there is no tension between what parents can pay and what workers can earn. Employed parents in France, for example, pay about 8 percent of their incomes for the care of very young children and 3 percent to 5 percent for the care of 3-year-olds to 5-year-olds. This is in sharp contrast to an estimated 10 percent of income paid, on average, by U.S. parents, and the 21 percent to 22 percent paid by U.S. parents with incomes in the bottom income quartile.

Child-care workers in these European countries are both highly educated and well compensated. In the U.S., child-care workers earn just more than one-half of the average annualized wage of all employed women in the country; preschool teachers earn about two-thirds that. In Denmark, Sweden, and Belgium, child-care professionals earn as much and often more than the average income of all women in the same country.

In the U.S., the lack of social provision creates a nearly insurmountable barrier to increasing the pay and qualifications of child-care workers. The fact that a small fraction of affluent families uses private nannies makes coalition politics on behalf of publicly financed child care that much more difficult. But as the parents in the working middle class find themselves increasingly with the same financial stresses as the working poor, that blockage could change.