Coping with the high costs and low wages of childcare

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Even before the pandemic, early childhood education centers in Evanston and across the country struggled to find enough teachers to stay afloat. The average kindergarten teacher in the United States earns just $ 12 an hour, and half of all teachers receive public assistance, according to the Treasury Department.

And thanks to COVID-19, the situation has only gotten worse. Teachers are leaving for better-paying jobs, and many have quit because low salaries don’t justify the risk of working in person during a pandemic.

Learning Bridge Early Education Center, corner of Asbury Avenue and Emerson Street in Evanston. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

“When I speak to the centers, one in particular is down from five teachers right now, one is down from three teachers and it goes on and on,” said Carol Teske, executive director of the Childcare Network of Evanston. “And the result is that the teachers who are always there are burning out at a much faster rate because the kids are there and they need care, and so they work longer hours, they move faster. It is very trying.

To make matters even more complicated, most American families can barely afford the expensive cost of child care in the first place. The average price for a year of child care is $ 10,000 per child, or about 13% of a typical household income, according to the Treasury Department. The New York Times reported earlier this month that some families pay up to 30% of their income for child care, more than what they allocate for rent or their mortgage.

In Evanston, nonprofit daycares provide places for low-income families, and Evanston / Skokie School District 65 also operates many Preschool for All and Early Head Start classrooms funded by grants from the Illinois State Board of Education. However, finding an opening in an affordable center can be a major challenge.

The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress hope to change that by passing the Build Back Better Act, which, among other things, would devote $ 250 billion in public funding to child care over the next decade and $ 200 billion. additional dollars to provide universal pre-kindergarten. . A recent Treasury Department analysis stated that the bill “ensures that families earning up to 1.5 times their state’s median income will pay no more than 7% of their income for high child care. quality for all children under 5 ”. In addition, the law proposes to stimulate the child care workforce through government grants that would increase teachers’ salaries.

Republicans in Congress and conservative political analysts have argued the country cannot afford direct child care subsidies, instead offering tax credits to increase the affordability of child care in the USA. Their policy suggestions have also focused on helping poorer American families, while the Biden administration has expressed a goal of easing financial burdens on families and child care at all levels.

Moderate Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have largely led efforts to reduce the amount of social safety net funding included in the Biden Bill. While Congress is expected to vote on the legislation as early as this week, Democratic leaders have slashed things like universal tax credits for community colleges and children to gain approval from Manchin and Sinema, but the most recent discussions have kept the universal preschool and most grants for child care programs intact.

Lack of investment

Research over the past decades has proven that high-quality early childhood education focused on socio-emotional learning and positive relationships can dramatically improve life outcomes, according to Dr. Terri Sabol, professor of human development and of Social Policy at Northwestern University.

But the United States has yet to follow through on this research to devote dollars to developing high-quality public child care facilities that provide free access and open to all families.

“We are currently one of the only countries in the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] which does not provide a universal pre-K, so [the Biden plan] would be a big boost, ”Sabol said. “We spend about 0.5% of our GDP on child care, and that’s really low compared to other countries. Places like Iceland, Sweden, Norway spend almost four times what we do on early childhood education.

For Lindsay Percival, who runs the Learning Bridge Early Education Center in Evanston, giving low-income children and families the opportunity to start primary school at the same level of learning as richer children remains the goal.

Some 65% of families in Learning Bridge use funds from the Child Care Assistance Program to pay for preschool education costs. These families still have a monthly co-payment of $ 196 through the program, which places a heavy burden on households living in poverty.

A classroom at the Learning Bridge Early Education Center. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

“We try to keep our costs as low as possible, but I have teachers who have gone to college for their masters in early childhood education or bachelors in early childhood education, or who have graduated two years, ”Percival said. “And these teachers deserve a living wage. “

Learning Bridge is also receiving government funding to compensate for offering so many slots to low-income families, but repayments have arrived up to six months late during the pandemic, which has placed a huge financial burden on the center. . The cost of running a child care program also involves huge expenses, with the center providing the classrooms, diapers, food, learning materials, and teachers.

A disheartening reality

With centers around Evanston desperate for more staff and teachers, Teske recently helped set up a career fair at the Robert Crown Community Center to help attract potential employees.

“We had eight programs out there that all needed to be hired and ready to have conversations with potential candidates, and one person showed up,” Teske said. “It was just disheartening because I think it tells the story that this area is not desirable right now, and we really have to think about how to make it desirable, because there are so many issues at stake. this subject.”

Teske’s local experience illustrates a larger crisis affecting child care programs across the country. Despite a passion for teaching young children how to develop relationships and think critically, many early childhood educators shun the industry because they can’t pay the bills with their low salaries.

Child care workers in Evanston, for example, often have multiple jobs and most live out of town because they can’t afford to live here, Percival said. These struggles will continue to impact the early childhood education sector until the federal government provides more funding to the industry, according to Sabol.

“Basically we have a big gap between the cost of child care programs and what families are able to afford,” Sabol said. “The centers operate on these very thin margins because they usually rely on family funds. So what the public purse needs to do is close the gap between what families pay and day-to-day operating costs so that it can provide a living wage for teachers. ”

Policy experts and educators argue that investing in child care is a wise and intelligent investment in the health and well-being of our society as a whole. Exposure to a stimulating learning environment at a very young age ultimately forms the basis for future learning, according to Sabol, and children who do not have these early childhood experiences typically begin kindergarten behind. the learning curve.

“At age 4, a child’s brain is 90% developed, and we know they are able to learn skills through intentional play, which will prepare them for kindergarten,” said Percival. “So especially in Evanston, where we have an educational divide, it is incumbent on early childhood centers to prepare children for kindergarten so that kindergarten is a level playing field for every child.”

But many in the early childhood workforce believe the federal government must compensate for a market failure by providing more funding to the industry.

“I think it’s a social responsibility, and it’s not at all fair when only those with the funds can access a quality education,” Teske said. “It’s a very archaic way of looking at our world.”


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