Valuing Child Care

WHAT does it say about American priorities and values that zoo keepers and parking-lot attendants routinely earn more money than child-care workers?

A majority of child-care providers have some college education. Yet they earn on average less than half as much as comparably educated women and less than a third as much as comparably educated men. Many child-care jobs, in fact, cannot guarantee even the $6.50 an hour plus health benefits considered necessary for a single person to survive economically.

Low wages, combined with few or no health benefits, work hardships on providers and their families. They also jeopardize the quality of care children receive, because low salaries produce high turnover.

This week marks the annual Week of the Young Child, a national effort to call attention to the need for better compensation for those who care for young children. Across the country parents, providers, and child advocates are introducing legislation, meeting with policymakers and business leaders, and holding conferences and rallies to raise public awareness about child-care issues.

The Worthy Wage Campaign, a national coalition of more than 250 child-care and advocacy groups, seeks a minimum average wage of $10 per hour for teachers and providers. The campaign, coordinated by the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force, wants to increase the federal commitment to quality early-childhood programs and find ways to make them affordable to all families. It also emphasizes that fair compensation for child-care providers must be a vital component of welfare reform.

Marcy Whitebook, director of the center, explains the importance of efforts to improve salaries this way: ``If we don't make child-care jobs pay better now, we will pay even more later with a generation that we failed from the start.'' The center estimates that child-care workers' low wages provide a $25 billion hidden subsidy to the nation every year.

Child-care jobs are expected to increase by as much as 50 percent in the next decade. Without more stability in this essential field - slowing the revolving door and improving the quality of care - the skimpy paychecks providers receive will continue to reinforce the sad fact that watching over animals and cars is more lucrative than caring for young children.

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