Uncle Sam: Stop pushing child care workers into poverty

Workers have unionized at least four Portland-area child care providers. Above, a June 4 rally in Laurelhurst Park to support a union effort at Joyful Noise featured face painting. | PHOTO BY DON McINTOSH


Mary King

We desperately need federal investment in free, universal, public early childhood education and care. But any national program should be modeled on Multnomah County’s Preschool for All—not on existing federal programs. Oregon’s partially federally funded programs, Head Start/Early Head Start and Employment Related Day Care, hold down workers’ wages and reimbursement rates for child care providers to a level well below the true cost and economic value of the care they provide.

The U.S. Department of Labor upholds labor standards in many situations, such as construction contracts involving federal dollars. Yet in child care, where more than 90% of workers are women, the federal government actively undermines labor standards. Head Start requires that workers be paid “market wages.” And Employment Related Day Care requires that “market rates” determine reimbursement for the child care providers who take part. That means that smaller providers, operating out of homes and caring for up to 16 children, are paid about half what is paid to child care centers per child.

Markets don’t work for child care. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls the child care market “broken.” Markets will never create the amount or quality of care that families need and want, because families can’t afford to pay for it. The same would be true for K-12 education if families had to pay for it directly.

Child care costs a family as much as rent—even with those low wages and cheap real estate like church basements. Most families depend on an ever-changing patchwork of care arrangements, including a lot of unpaid care by relatives, mostly women and girls. Providing that care can be a pleasure, but too often it involves sacrificing income or school work—stressing family relationships and risking poverty in old age.

Early childhood education and care is an investment that benefits the entire community, not just the families who pay the bill. Parents—and later, children—get more education, more work, more earnings, and pay more taxes, while the costs of crime, incarceration, public benefits and special education decline.

Multnomah County’s Preschool for All is a much better child care model. The county’s new preschool program requires that all classroom staff be paid at least $19.91 an hour, and it puts lead teachers on a path to be paid comparably with kindergarten teachers. Benefits are required for all employees.

The early childhood workforce suffers from extremely high levels of turnover, which wastes training and experience, and harms quality. To bring turnover down, we should be pushing to further improve wages and working conditions while supporting workers to organize unions so they can have more say in their workplaces.

It’s not just pay that makes Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program a national model. The program is also equitably funded, by a county income tax on households with incomes of over $200,000 a year. It’s ramping up year by year, and when it becomes fully universal in 2030, Preschool for All will be free, year-round, and available to all three- and four-year-olds, with lots of options for schedule, language, cultural approach and setting. As the program grows, these choices must include early mornings, evenings, weekends and overnight, for the growing number of children whose parents work during “non-traditional” hours, as well as drop-in programs for families coping with irregular and unpredictable work schedules.

The federal government is paying for physical infrastructure and support for industries like electronics. Where is the support for child care?

Mary King is an economics professor emerita at Portland State University and former president of the faculty union PSU-AAUP. She recently co-authored a U of O Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) report on the growing need for non-traditional hours in daycare.

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