These lowest paid workers have a most important job

Americans may say they support high-quality early childhood education, but that sentiment isn't showing up in the pay of child care workers.

Almost half of these workers receive some form of public support, such as food stamps, because their pay is on par with what fast-food workers receive, according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. The median hourly wage for child care workers is $9.77 an hour, not far from the $9.47 median hourly wage for fast-food workers. In some states, child care workers earn even less, such as in Mississippi, where the median hourly rate is $8.72, the report found.

The findings come at a time when many American families are struggling to pay for child care because the cost of early childhood education has increased at twice the rate of inflation since the recession ended in 2009. Even though fees are rising, that money isn't going into the pockets of child care workers, who remain among the country's lowest paid workers.

At the same time, poor children are increasingly arriving at kindergarten with lagging "noncognitive" skills such as self-control in comparison with children from wealthier families who can afford vital educational resources.

"The amount of developmental time given to children is opening up a gap with the education of parents and their income," said Megan Gunnar, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, on a conference call. "Younger parents who have to work two to three jobs don't have the time to take their children to the zoo and libraries, and all the things many parents do to help children develop their brains."

She added that "More and more families require child care and someone else to take care of the children during the day."

Early childhood education is a skilled profession, with many workers earning college degrees in the field before heading out to the job market. But once there, they're confronted with the realities of low pay, which makes it difficult to make ends meet, especially while repaying college loans.

One reason child care is so expensive -- in many states, it costs more than college tuition -- is that it requires a high ratio of teachers to students, as well as the rising cost of rent, which is putting pressure on child care centers.

"If we really want to do well, we need a highly trained, highly educated workforce," Gunnar said. "I do not know how I can convince people to get trained to take out loans, get a BA and then go out and make minimum wage and not be able to pay off their loans."

That may explain why turnover is so high among child care workers. Marcy Whitebook, the director of Berkeley's Center for the Study of Early Child Care Employment, noted that it's often about 20 percent to 30 percent.

"There are real struggles I face for earning poor wages," said Kristy Umfleet, an early childhood educator from North Carolina. "I cannot afford to put my 2-year-old in an early childhood program like the one I teach in. I can't pay bills on time. I know others in the field who are lacking support and leave teaching altogether because it's too emotionally and physically draining" without paying a living wage.

Because the early childhood education workforce largely comprises women, a gender bias may be coming into play. Some Americans view early childhood education as unskilled labor, something that any woman is capable of handling, even though educating young children requires a vast body of knowledge and helps give America's next generation the skills to succeed later in life, the researchers noted.

While educating children from kindergarten through 12th grade is seen as a public good, that philosophical and financial support hardly exists for families with children younger than five. The public school system primarily adheres to a structure developed over a century ago, when American families were more likely to have mothers who didn't work outside the home.

Today, families are often forced to make tough choices, even if it means hurting their long-term career and earnings prospects. Because finding quality yet affordable early child care is so difficult, about half of fathers and three-quarters of mothers told a Washington Post poll that they had either switched jobs, quit or passed up career opportunities to take care of their children.

Of course, how to balance the financial stress of child care on families while trying to raise the shamefully low pay for child care workers may not have an easy solution.