A worthy wage for child care

June 16, 1993

Few statistics better illustrate the low esteem with which this society regards the labor traditionally known as "women's work" than this: Real wages for entry-level child care workers have declined since 1988. Adjusted for inflation, the average hourly wage for these workers in 1988 was $5.16. In 1992, the wage had dropped to $5.08.

For workers who already toil long work hours that can often be arduous, this is discouraging news. It's equally discouraging for parents, whose often-tenuous arrangements for their children's care are further strained by conditions that contribute to high rates of staff turnover in child care centers. Children need continuity in their relationships, not a parade of caretakers.

Good child care is one of the cornerstones of the contemporary labor force. Without it, working parents are distracted and less productive. Yet the low wages for workers are only one of the problems that plague child care centers. Health insurance is another major concern.

Child care workers are frequently exposed to illnesses, yet few centers are able to offer adequate health insurance. According to the Child Care Employee Project, only 18 percent of centers surveyed paid the full monthly premiums for all members of their full-time teaching staffs. If President Clinton succeeds in reforming health care in a way that allows child care workers decent coverage without cutting into wages, that step would be a major contribution to better-quality, affordable day care.

The group has also identified other needs for day-care workers, among them better access to training and professional development. No one disputes these goals. But parents do have concerns about who will pay. For higher-paid workers, the issue isn't as pressing. But low-income wage earners already spend up to 22 percent of their income for child care, a hefty slice from any paycheck.

Child care is costly, but decent child care, like decent schools, pays rich dividends. Many millions of men and women who keep the economy humming depend on good, reliable child care in order to perform their jobs. As things now stand with child care wages, their productivity is resting on a precarious base.

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