The Child Care Worker Wage Problem & Dilemma

Why are the educators who can have the greatest impact on a child’s life paid the least?


With public school teachers throughout the nation striking for higher wages, we can’t help but think about the wages of Georgia’s early childhood educators and the fact that almost 90 percent of them do not make a living wage. Lead child care teachers in Georgia are paid on average $10.14 an hour, while assistant teachers make $9.18 an hour. State and federally funded programs, such as Georgia Pre-K and Head Start, pay slightly higher wages of $16.45 an hour for a lead teacher, though these still pale in comparison to public school teacher wages.

Every day, Georgia parents drop more than 337,000 infants and young children off at child care, trusting the teachers will provide safe early learning experiences that will impact their child’s development and prepare them for educational success for years to come. But -- is early childhood education really as important as elementary, middle and high school education? Some would argue it is more important. Consider these facts:

  • 90 percent of a child’s brain is “hardwired” before the age of five, setting the groundwork for future learning
  • High-quality child care programs for disadvantaged children provide a 13 percent return on investment (ROI) when factoring future school success, health, crime, income gap costs
  • At-risk children who do not receive high-quality child care are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school and 60 percent more likely to never attend college

Early childhood education is just that—education. And, child care professionals are not babysitters, they are teachers. In order to give children the quality early learning they need and deserve, expectations and educational requirements for early childhood educators have been raised. Some early learning advocates are calling for even higher requirements such as bachelor’s degrees for entry into the field.  However, while educational requirements have increased, wages remain stagnant.  For instance:

  • One in seven child care workers and their families live below the poverty line, which for a family of four is about $24,000
  • Only 15 percent of child care workers have health insurance from their job
  • 46 percent of child care workers receive some form of public government assistance (food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, etc.)

Parents are usually shocked by these facts. How is it that they pay so much for child care while the child care teachers are paid so little? Here is how. 

Child care is a very staff intensive industry. For example, regulations require a child to teacher ratio of one to six in infant rooms and one to 10 in toddler rooms (age 2). Quality care is expensive for programs to provide and they can only charge what parents are able to pay. This rate rarely covers the full cost of operating a child care program. For most programs, raising the price to cover their full costs (including livable wages for staff) would make their care completely unaffordable to the families they serve. Children from low-income families who benefit the most from highly-skilled child care teachers are often in programs least able to increase wages and compensation for their staff. Quality child care is essentially subsidized by the low wages of the teachers.

Ninety-six percent of the child care workforce are women, many with children of their own. To make ends meet, they often work additional jobs and receive public support. Good teachers sometimes leave the field for higher wages, even seeking employment in the fast food industry. Low wages are not only a problem for child care teachers, they also impact child care quality and therefore children’s readiness for school. At 30 percent annually, turnover of child care teachers is high and the cost to train, and re-train teachers, is significant. This impacts the financial sustainability of child care programs, and without those programs, parents can’t work. Turnover also costs the children as research says that children, especially the younger ones, need a consistent caregiver.

Early childhood education is one of the strongest bi-partisan issues in our country and it has near universal support from public policy officials, health experts, K-12 educators, and economists. It is great that millions of federal, state, and private dollars have been directed to a wide array of programs and services supporting Georgia’s early childhood education programs, however, it is difficult for this funding to directly impact the wages and compensation of the industry’s workers. Unlike K-12 education, there are less clear child care systems that can channel funding to have a direct and immediate impact on wages. The child care industry in Georgia is largely defined by several thousand independently owned and operated businesses, making system-wide change often complicated and costly. If you accept that child care is a public good, preparing children for success in school and allowing parents to work or attend college, and neither the child care programs nor the families can afford to pay teachers a family sustainable wage, what then?

We recognize that this is a complicated issue, though we cannot be satisfied with the current compensation for the educators having the greatest impact on our children. There will not be a single solution to addressing this wage paradox. Quality Care for Children is committed to working with policy makers and our partners to seek solutions at all levels to increase and enhance compensation for Georgia’s early childhood educators and staff. Our communities, schools, and economy depend on quality child care programs and we must put support for their workforce at the forefront of new policies, programs, and initiatives.