Low Day-Care Salaries Undervalue Children As Well as Providers

When American businesses open their doors today to a future generation of workers for the annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day, many of those daughters - and a growing number of curious sons - will flock to glamour industries. Who can blame them for wanting to see law offices, brokerage firms, and computer companies - corporate worlds with career ladders, paneled boardrooms, and livable salaries?

No one expects a similar student stampede to child-care centers. On the basis of wages, child care hardly ranks as an upwardly mobile career. Only 15 occupations pay lower median wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks 764 occupations. A typical child-care worker earns just $6.12 an hour, compared with $6.38 for a parking lot attendant, $8.50 for a data entry keyer, $11.58 for a bus driver, and $19.16 for a kindergarten teacher.

So critical is the situation that a report to be released Tuesday by the Center for the Child Care Workforce in Washington finds that child-care salaries have stagnated at near-poverty levels, despite above-average levels of education for many workers. The resulting turnover and understaffing, the report warns, produce poor quality care.

Today the US Treasury Department will also release a report on child care, showing its importance to the economy and its value to businesses in increasing productivity and reducing absenteeism. It also describes successful corporate and community initiatives.

These reports coincide with other events calling attention to the needs of young children. This week marks the 28th annual Week of the Young Child, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. And next week, on May 1, the Center for the Child Care Workforce will hold its seventh annual Worthy Wage Day, designed to show how wages and training affect the quality of care children receive.

That subject holds special relevance this year as welfare reform creates an urgent need for more child care. The good news about welfare reform, says Barbara Willer, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, is that it has helped to focus public attention on the need for child care.

But then there is the bad news: As welfare reform forces mothers to go to work, it pushes some children into substandard care.

"We're growing the child-care system, but not in a very thoughtful way," says Marcy Whitebook, co-director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce. "To be so focused on getting mothers to work, without focusing on quality care for their kids, is shortsighted and stupid at best, and criminal at worst."

As the stock market soars into the stratosphere, reflecting prosperous times, child-care centers face even stiffer competition for staff members. Why take such low-paying work, potential employees reason, when other jobs are available?

Yet prosperity makes poor-quality care all the more indefensible. As Ms. Willer observes, "Given the relatively flush times, I don't think states have done all they could in terms of addressing child-care needs."

Singing nursery rhymes, wiping noses, reading stories, and sharing hugs and love will never add up to a glamour job by the usual definitions of corporate success. But Ms. Whitebook underscores its importance by saying, "It's not a throwaway, anybody-can-do-it service. The care and education of young children is vital not only to the quality of life for these kids today, but ultimately to who these kids are going to be tomorrow."

If child-care salaries ever increase enough to support a middle-class life, the revolving door would probably stop. The combination of satisfaction and remuneration could then make it an option to future daughters and sons as they check out careers on some Take Our Children to Work Day early in the 21st century.

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