ANY week now, political candidates are likely to start showing up at child-care centers for what has become a favorite campaign-trail photo opportunity. They will cuddle babies, read stories to preschoolers, and perhaps even climb inside a fort, as President Bush did last year. Whatever the activity, they hope their presence will send a warm and cuddly message to voters: "Elect me. I like children, and I understand the needs of working families."
What won't be conveyed with equal fervor in any speeches from day-care centers is an understanding of the needs of the nation's 1 million child-care providers. Overworked and underpaid, they constitute one of the least stable and most undervalued professions. They earn an average of $5.35 an hour. Their real wages, adjusted for inflation, have declined by nearly one-quarter since the mid-1970s. Only a third have health insurance, and many don't receive retirement benefits. As a result, turnover averages 40 percent a year - hardly the kind of stability working parents and their young children need.
So serious is the problem that a coalition of early-childhood organizations has just launched a five-year "Worthy Wage Campaign." Their goal is to make politicians and everyone else aware that child care must become a career people can afford.
As part of Worthy Wage Day last Thursday, parents and care givers across the United States staged rallies, parades, and visits to legislators. In Missouri, they distributed peanuts with the slogan, "My child's teacher is tired of working for peanuts." In North Carolina, they wore tags to work that said, "Behind every working parent is an underpaid child-care worker." And in Tennessee, they placed life-size cutouts of children in workplaces and the downtown area.
Organizers are urging child-care providers to write to their legislators, explaining how much they are paid and how wages affect turnover. They also want parents to write letters, describing their concerns about their children and their own need for worthy wages to cover the cost of quality care.
These are modest, homespun efforts. But in a nation that speaks glibly about "quality" child care, they symbolize the gap between platitudes and reality.
Child-care centers face a dilemma: If they raise fees to pay workers a living wage, many parents cannot afford to enroll their children. But if they keep fees low, care givers cannot afford to work there. Even when parents can afford higher fees, attitudes left over from paying teenage babysitters on Saturday night perpetuate expectations that child care should be inexpensive.
Marcy Whitebook, executive director of the Child Care Employee Project in Oakland, Calif., which is coordinating the campaign, explains that child-care workers are paid about half of what they should be. Through their low wages, they subsidize the cost of care.
What will it take to improve salaries? Whitebook believes greater government support must be part of the solution. "People don't like to hear that, because it's going to cost money," she says. "But child care has the potential to help children start school ready to learn. It helps to keep parents in the work force and to combat welfare dependency."
As one example of the stabilizing effect of higher salaries, Whitebook points to a two-year pilot program in the military. Child-care centers on Army bases were having "a terrible time" finding workers, she says, because people could make more money stocking grocery shelves and doing other entry-level jobs. When the government allocated money to improve training and increase salaries from well under $5 an hour to between $6 and $8 an hour, turnover dropped from 60 percent to 17 percent in a year and a ha lf.
"What we're really talking about is valuing the work of women and taking care of children," Whitebook says. "I don't think someone is going to hand us that on a silver platter. It requires standing up and saying, 'What we do is worthy.' "
In a country where just about everything is now available at a discount, care giving in all its forms - child care, nursing care, elder care - remains one of the last essential commodities where no one can honestly say, "I can get it for you wholesale."