Even before the pandemic, early childhood education centers in Evanston and across the country were struggling to find enough teachers to stay afloat. The average child care worker in the United States makes just $12 an hour, and half of all teachers receive public assistance, according to the Treasury Department. 

And thanks to COVID-19, the situation has only grown worse. Teachers are leaving for higher-wage jobs, and many have quit because the low pay does not justify the risk of working in-person during a pandemic. 

Learning Bridge Early Education Center, at the corner of Asbury Avenue and Emerson Street in Evanston. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

“When I talk to centers, one in particular is down five teachers right now, one’s down three teachers and it goes on and on,” said Carol Teske, Executive Director of the Childcare Network of Evanston. “And the outcome of that is the teachers that are still there are burning out at a much faster pace because the children are there, and they need care, and so they’re working longer hours, they’re moving faster. It’s very taxing.”

To make matters even more complicated, most American families can barely afford the burdensome cost of child care in the first place. The average price tag for a year of child care is $10,000 per child, amounting to around 13% of a typical household income, according to the Treasury Department. The New York Times reported earlier this month that some families pay as much as 30% of their income for child care, more than what they allot for rent or their mortgage. 

In Evanston, nonprofit child care centers offer some slots to low-income families, and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 also operates many Preschool for All and Early Head Start classrooms funded through grants from the Illinois State Board of Education. Still, finding an opening at an affordable center can be a major challenge.

The Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress hope to change that by passing the Build Back Better Act, which, among many other things, would devote $250 billion in public funding to child care over the next decade and another $200 billion to provide universal pre-kindergarten classes. A recent Treasury Department analysis said the bill “ensures that families earning up to 1.5 times their state’s median income will pay no more than 7 percent of their income for high-quality child care for all children under age 5.” Additionally, the legislation proposes boosting the child care workforce through government subsidies that would increase teacher wages. 

Republicans in Congress and conservative policy analysts have argued that the country cannot afford direct subsidies for child care, instead proposing tax credits to boost the affordability of child care in the United States. Their policy suggestions have also focused on helping the poorest American families, while the Biden administration has expressed the goal of alleviating financial burdens on families and child care centers across the board.

Moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have largely driven efforts to pare down the amount of social safety net funding included in the Biden bill. With Congress set to vote on the legislation as early as this week, Democratic leaders have cut down certain aspects like universal community college and child tax credits to get approval from Manchin and Sinema, but the most recent discussions have kept universal prekindergarten and most subsidies for child care programs intact.

A lack of investment

Research from the last few decades has proven that a high-quality early childhood education focused on social-emotional learning and positive relationships can boost life outcomes significantly, according to Dr. Terri Sabol, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. 

But the United States has yet to act on that research to dedicate dollars toward developing high-quality public child care centers that offer free and open access to all families. 

“We are currently one of the only countries in the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] that does not provide universal pre-K, so [the Biden plan] would be a big boost,” Sabol said. “We spend about 0.5% of our GDP on child care, and that’s really low compared to other countries. Places like Iceland, Sweden, Norway, they’re spending almost four times what we do on early childhood education.”

For Lindsay Percival, who runs the Learning Bridge Early Education Center in Evanston, giving low-income children and families the opportunity to start elementary school at the same learning level as wealthier kids remains the goal.

Some 65% of Learning Bridge’s families use funds from the Child Care Assistance Program to pay for the early education cost. Those families still have a monthly co-pay of $196 through the program, which represents a large burden for households living in poverty. 

A classroom at Learning Bridge Early Education Center. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

“We try to keep our costs as low as we can, but I have teachers who went to college for their master’s degrees in early childhood education or their bachelors in early childhood education, or have got a two-year degree,” Percival said. “And those teachers deserve a living wage.”

Learning Bridge also receives government funding to make up for providing so many slots to low-income families, but the reimbursements have arrived up to six months late during the pandemic, which has placed a huge financial burden on the center. The cost of running a child care program also involves massive expenses, with the center providing the classrooms, diapers, food, learning materials and teachers. 

A disheartening reality

With centers around Evanston desperate for more staff members and teachers, Teske recently helped set up a job fair at the Robert Crown Community Center to help attract potential employees.

“We had eight programs there all in need of hiring and ready to have conversations with potential candidates, and one person showed up,” Teske said. “It was just disheartening because I think it tells the story that this field is not desirable right now, and we need to really think about how to make it desirable, because so much is at stake over this.”

Teske’s experience locally illustrates a broader crisis affecting child care programs across the country. Despite a passion for teaching young children how to develop relationships and think critically, many early childhood educators are fleeing the industry because they can’t pay the bills with their low wages.

Child care workers in Evanston, for example, often work multiple jobs, and most live outside of the city because they can’t afford to live here, Percival said. These struggles will continue to impact the early childhood education sector until the federal government offers more funding to the industry, according to Sabol. 

“Basically, we have a big gap between the cost of child care programs and what families are able to pay,” Sabol said. “Centers are operating on these razor-thin margins because typically they’re relying on family funds. So what public dollars need to do is bridge the gap between what families are paying and what the operating costs are on the day-to-day in order to be able to provide a livable wage for teachers.” 

Policy experts and educators argue that investing in child care represents a sound and smart investment in the health and wellbeing of our society as a whole. Exposure to a stimulating learning environment at a very young age ultimately forms the foundation for future learning, according to Sabol, and children who lack those early childhood experiences typically begin kindergarten behind the learning curve. 

“By 4 years old, a child’s brain is 90% grown, and we know that they are able to gain skills through intentional play, which will prepare them for kindergarten,” Percival said. “So particularly in Evanston, where we have the educational divide, it does fall on the early childhood centers to prepare children for kindergarten so that kindergarten is a level playing field for every child.”

But many in the early childhood workforce believe that the federal government has to make up for a market failure by providing more funding to the industry. 

“I feel it’s a social responsibility, and it’s not equitable at all when only those that have funds can access quality education,” Teske said. “It’s a very antiquated way of looking at our world.” 

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

One reply on “Confronting high cost, low wages of child care”

  1. Thank you Duncan Agnew for this very important and comprehensive article. I would be interested to know what Cradle to Career perceives as their role/responsibility in this process. Hopefully Mayor Biss can provide leadership and issue a clarion call for the Evanston community to enable each and every child to be “READY 4 KINDERGARTEN.” The Opportunity Gap enables a Readiness Gap that results in the Achievement Gap.

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