President Obama isn't alone in touting early education as one of the country's priorities. Again and again, research has shown that the first few years of a child's life is critical to success later on.
Yet when it comes to putting money behind that philosophy, the country is falling far behind, according to a new study from University of California, Berkeley's Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Early childhood education workers make a median wage of $10.60 per hour, or less than what dog trainers earn.
Those low wages mean that early childhood education workers, such as daycare employees or preschool teachers, are often forced to rely on government programs such as food stamps to make ends meet. Almost one-half of childcare workers were enrolled in at least one of four public support programs in 2012, compared with only 25 percent of the U.S. workforce, the study found. The high reliance on government programs creates a $2.4 billion annual tab for public benefits given to childcare workers and their families.
"There is a disconnect here," Marcy Whitebrook, the director at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, told CBS MoneyWatch. "We're saying the early years are the most important years, that everyone needs really good early learning experiences, and that's the best investment we can make in the future of the country, as it reduces costs later on in terms of remedial education. So we're saying that, but the way we have set up the system for the most part means it's not working that way."
At the same time, the cost of childcare for families has risen sharply, with the price rising almost twofold since 1997, the study found. Childcare workers, however, haven't seen a real rise in earnings at the same time.
"Parents can't pay enough to generate salaries that are good salaries for those doing the work," Whitebrook noted.
Indeed, the Pew Research Center cited the rising cost of childcare as one reason why there are more stay-at-home mothers today than a decade ago. The Census has noted that for mothers with more than one child under five years old, the cost of day care may be higher than what she could earn.
In 2011, about 25 percent of preschool-age children, or 2.7 million children, with employed mothers relied on day-care centers, preschools or other facilities for primary care. About half of preschoolers with employed mothers rely on family or parents to take care of them.
Families in Massachusetts pay an average of $16,430 per year for childcare center fees, the most expensive state in Pew's study. The least expensive was Arkansas, at $5,909. In 31 states, college tuition is actually cheaper than paying for daycare.
Childcare workers earn a median hourly wage of $10.60 per hour, while animal trainers earn $14.92 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dog trainers earn an average of $20 an hour, according to the Animal Behavior College.
"It could be a win-win-win for people, but right now it's a lose-lose-lose," Whitebrook noted.
The difference between early education and K-12 programs is a lack of public funding to help support the high cost of early care and education, Whitebrook notes. While parents and children can rely on loans and grants to help pay for college, that doesn't exist for early education -- and even if it did, most parents wouldn't find that palatable.
"Young families don't want to tell their five year old you already have a debt burden in first grade," she notes. "We couldn't pay for K-12 education without public support," and given the importance of early education, policymakers should be focused on identifying sustainable sources of public funding to upgrade compensation for childcare workers.
The field may be a victim of gender bias, to some extent, given that childcare workers are predominantly women, and the issue of childcare is seen as a problem that parents need to deal with, she added.
"Basically for decades, we have had a stalemate on these issues, where families are scrambling to put it together," she said. "All the science says this is worth fixing, and we've gone for decades knowing it's a problem and we still haven't fixed it."