LiAnne Flakes, 40, has worked in the child care industry for 22 years, and after all that time she says she still can't afford health insurance and struggles at times to buy groceries.
"I've been taking care of other families, making sure their needs are met, but you can't even take care of your own needs," she said of her hourly rate, which until recently was $10.75 an hour. "It is a struggle from day to day. Going to the grocery store is a luxury after I pay my bills."
Despite all this, Flakes is doing better than many other child care workers because 15 percent of them live below the poverty line, or double the poverty rate for workers in other occupations, according to new research from The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
Like Flakes, about one-third of child care workers live on income within twice the the poverty threshold, which may be high enough to disqualify them from government assistance but requires daily sacrifices to keep the lights on and have food in the pantry. Their earnings are so low that child care workers would be hard-pressed to send their own kids to preschool.
"They have a hard time affording child care and making ends meet," said EPI senior economist Elise Gould, who wrote the research report. "We think of child care workers as being one step away from being elementary school workers, but they are much more similar to cashiers or food service workers" in terms of pay.
At the same time, American families everywhere are stretched thin by the rising costs of sending their kids to preschool before they can enroll in public elementary school. The cost of child care is now a major stress on many American families because it costs more than college tuition in 33 states and the District of Columbia, according to October report from Gould.
Gould noted that child care centers aren't high-margin businesses. States have regulations about the number of child care workers per children, which makes it a labor-intensive industry. Insurance, overhead and other costs also contribute to parents' child care bills.
Even though Americans say they value education, the country is falling far behind when it comes to the early childhood years. Policy experts say the problem is a system that depends on parents' paying tuition, while they get little support from state or federal programs to help pay for child care.
Head Start, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been successful, but it's limited to low-income families, and it doesn't reach middle-income families who also need help to send their kids to preschool.
Earlier research has found that America's child care system isn't working for the employees who take care of the kids, given that almost one-half of early-childhood education workers are enrolled in at least one of four public support programs, according to research from the University of California, Berkeley's Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
The median wage of child care workers is just $10.31 an hour, far less than the median $12.39 per hour wage for dog trainers. The child care industry's low pay primarily hurts women, who make up 96 percent of employees in the field.
What's the answer to the double whammy of high costs for families and low pay for workers? Government policies that provide some support to families and workers could help, such as income-based subsidies, the EPI noted.
"The scale of the problem is huge," Gould said. "You really need big solutions. Many Americans struggle with this."
Flakes, who has some college education and a Child Development Associate credential, recently saw some relief when she was hired by a Head Start program for $12.50 an hour. She says those few extra dollars are a help.
"It's only in the last 10 or 15 years it's been considered a career," she said. "A lot of people see those at the bottom as glorified babysitters, but we're early child care educators."