Vital Jobs, Meager Pay

ONE paycheck away from the poverty line. That's how a Head Start official describes the precarious condition of many child-care providers and preschool teachers. What other profession requiring such a combination of patience, idealism, and love is rewarded by such a combination of low wages, poor benefits, and limited opportunities for promotion?

Two reports issued in recent weeks spell out the troubling facts. One, from the National Head Start Association, notes that in 1988 nearly half of Head Start teachers earned less than $10,000 per year. The average annual beginning salary of a Head Start teacher with a bachelor's degree that year was just $12,074 - 37 percent lower than comparable salaries in public schools.

The other report, from the Panel on Child Care Policy, cites studies showing that in 1988 the average hourly wage for child-care workers was $5.35, or $9,363 a year for full-time employment. (The federal poverty level for a family of three that year was $9,431.) Most child-care workers do not receive annual merit raises or cost-of-living increases, and only 40 percent receive health coverage. As a consequence, turnover averages 41 percent a year and morale is often low.

The underpaid workers are not the only ones suffering. Inequities like these pose serious threats to the well-being of very young children. They also reveal a lot about attitudes toward care-giving. Too often this essential activity is regarded as a temporary job - glorified baby-sitting. Dedicated teachers, so the stereotype goes, find a satisfaction in working with children that compensates for their low wages.

But dedication alone does not put groceries on the table or pay the rent. Dedication does not make up for a lack of health coverage and retirement benefits.

What can be done? For Head Start teachers, the National Head Start Association recommends that a portion of the program's funds be earmarked to increase staff compensation and training. For care-givers and preschool teachers elsewhere, the Panel on Child Care Policy suggests unionization as a way to raise salaries. A study last year found that child-care workers in unions averaged $5.21 more an hour than their nonunion peers.

Child-care centers and preschools have long faced a dilemma: how to offer salaries high enough to attract - and hold - qualified workers while keeping costs low enough to be affordable. But as the need for stable, high-quality care continues to grow, and as Head Start seeks to expand its programs, Americans face a choice: Pay early for good quality care, or pay later for the consequences of neglect.

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