Wendy Wagner Robeson is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has spent 30 years studying early childhood education and its workforce.
Even before the pandemic hit, the U.S. was facing a severe shortage of early childhood educators. Not enough educators meant not enough child care spots for children — in Boston, for example, of more than 2,500 parents surveyed in 2019, 45% said child care was either too far or too difficult to find.
Families that couldn’t get a spot had to piece together care through family members, neighbors or other haphazard situations that were often unreliable and of questionable quality.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2021, more than a year into a global pandemic, and the situation has only gotten worse. Child care centers that were closed for months have reopened, but are now struggling to find educators. Family child care providers are also reopening. However, many centers and family child care providers have not and may never reopen. The nationwide shortage has become a crisis — and the consequences fall heavily on women.
The broken business model of child care is largely to blame. In centers, after paying for rent, supplies, insurance and other expenses, there isn’t enough left to pay employees much more than minimum wage, even though in many states, child care costs more than public college tuition.
Taking care of small children is highly skilled work and requires a high ratio of educators to children, so centers can’t simply hire fewer workers or less-qualified ones. Family child care businesses, which are small and based out of providers’ homes, have been disappearing over the past 15 years because it’s difficult for them to survive financially. When it comes to child care, the business models don’t work without the exploitation of their workforce.
Getting paid very little for a demanding job isn’t appealing to a lot of people, even those who love working with children. Many early childhood educators left for other careers even before the pandemic. Some went on to become elementary school teachers, which requires more education but also pays much better.
Then the pandemic happened. In its first six months, the child care industry shrank by 20%, and nearly 200,000 workers lost their jobs. Thousands of child care programs have closed permanently. These programs got by on razor-thin margins before the pandemic, and after being closed for months during lockdowns and reopening with limited capacity and extra expenses due to new health regulations, many simply could not afford to keep their doors open. Those programs that have been able to reopen have struggled to find staff. But where have early childhood educators gone?
Much like restaurant workers, retail workers or other low-wage “essential” workers, many early childhood educators have decided it’s not worth it to earn poverty wages while risking their health — particularly in jobs that involve working in close quarters with small children who may be too young to wear masks and for whom vaccinations aren’t yet on the horizon.
After being laid off in 2020, many early childhood educators continue to receive unemployment, which may amount to more than their previously meager wages. Many have to stay home with their own young children who aren’t in school or child care. Many have moved on to other careers in other industries. No matter the reason, they have decided the calculus of working in early childhood education no longer adds up.
We know that when child care isn’t available, it puts incredible strain on families, and women are the ones who stay home to care for children. This is a disaster for women’s participation in the workforce and for the U.S. economy as a whole. Women have left the workforce in droves in the last year, and there is no sign of their return. For all of us, economic recovery depends on parents being able to work, and therefore on a reliable system of child care.
What can we do to get these childcare workers back, or recruit new ones into the field? It will take a drastic reimagining of our child care system, which the Biden administration supports. The American Families Plan includes a proposed $15 minimum wage for early childhood educators, coaching and professional development, and comparable compensation and benefits for educators who have similar qualifications as kindergarten teachers.
This is an ambitious plan, and it will need to go even further. We also need to maintain the diversity of a field that is largely composed of women of color and reduce turnover. This workforce needs a career lattice rather than a single path, with multiple points of entry into careers in early childhood care and education, and various ways to advance in the field.
We should not only increase the pay of educators who have the credentials to teach kindergarten, but also make it possible for more educators to attain those credentials in the first place. Most importantly, we will need to permanently change the way we fund child care in this country, with the recognition that it is not a women’s issue; it is a public good that is inseparable from the economy as a whole.
Having studied this field for the past 30 years, it’s exciting to see this administration propose what many of us have long been advocating for. It’s also exciting to see the proposed plan include consideration for the early childhood education workforce, which is so critical to any improvements to our system. These educators are indeed essential to our society, and we need them to choose to stay in this field.