ABC's and 123's:

A Blog by Action for Children

Equal Pay Day: The True Cost of Working in Child Care 


The persistent wage gap between men and women in this country is no secret. For centuries, the work women do has been undervalued compared to their male counterparts – so much so that it’s almost an accepted part of life. As an early learning-focused organization, we see this not only on the individual level, but also on the industry level with child care. 

Child care has historically been considered women’s work. In the home, the woman is often the caregiver and nurturer, the first to leave the workforce when child care costs force a family to choose between earning a wage or paying for full-time care. In the classroom, education is a female-dominated industry — 2022 data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that 76.5% of teachers in all public schools are female. In early childhood or general elementary education, that number is 91.5%.

However, behind this inequity lies an even deeper issue—a hidden cost that many fail to recognize. The reality is, the true cost of working in child care extends beyond lost wages; it encompasses inequities in healthcare & benefits, and inevitably includes the long-term effects of burnout. Let’s take a look. 

One of the hallmarks of working in child care is chronically low pay, reflective of an industry plagued by razor-thin profit margins. Despite their pivotal role in nurturing and educating our youngest generation, workers often have to settle for hourly wages that don’t even rival fast food joints. The median pay for child care workers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2022 was $13.71 — an increase from pre-ARPA times, but still an insufficient amount for many to make ends meet. Just as alarming is the prevailing disparity between the pay of male and female workers within the industry. In 2023, the National Women’s Law Center reported that on average, full-time, year-round female child care workers $11.54 per hour, while their male counterparts make $12.58 per hour. While neither salary holds a candle to what full-time workers make in other sectors, it’s worth noting that gender-based wage inequality still exists, even in a female dominated industry. 

Compensation: A Stark Reality

To add insult to injury, educational attainment offers little encouragement. Many child care workers hold advanced degrees or specialized qualifications – yet still earn far less than they would in other industries. Recent data from the National Women’s Law Center highlights this disparity, revealing that women with bachelor’s degrees or higher working in child care earn a median wage of $14.42 per hour, compared to the $31.35 median hourly wage of what similarly educated women earn in other fields.

This reality gets even worse for family child care providers. Data from Action for Children’s Tipping Point report also found that a shocking number of Family Child Care providers – 53% — don’t even allocate a salary for themselves. For those who do, the median monthly salary of $1,454 reflects surviving rather than thriving.

Health Care & Benefits: An Unattainable Luxury 

Action for Children’s newest Child Care Provider Survey report, The Tipping Point, took a first-in-state look at health insurance for child care providers in central Ohio, uncovering another cost to the professionals who work in child care. Of the 400+ program owners and administrators surveyed, only one-third offered health, dental, or vision insurance for their staff. For Family Child Care providers, one in four (23.5%) report not having health insurance for themselves, and 28.1% and 32.7% report not having dental or vision insurance, respectively.  

The disparity becomes evident when comparing child care centers to other businesses. 75% of firms with 25-49 employees provide insurance to their employees. 58% of firms with 10-24 employees provide insurance to their employees. Only 36.9% of child care centers surveyed provide insurance to their employees.  
Why? They simply can’t afford it. 

For child care workers, many of whom have families of their own, not having access to insurance and other benefits is a huge cost. Child care workers often report worrying about food, housing, and other expenses – a need we’ve seen evidenced firsthand processing applications for educator rental assistance through Franklin County RISE. As a report published by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley puts it, “…undertaking this work [of teaching and caring for children] has been a pathway to poverty for many early educators and poses a risk to their well-being, with consequences extending to their own families and to the children in their care.” 

Burnout: A Silent Epidemic 

In so many ways, working in child care is rewarding. Ask almost any provider why they do it and the answer is generally the same – they love working with children and supporting their growth. But in reality, it’s a difficult job that we often take for granted.  

Action for Children’s 2021 Child Care Provider Survey revealed a staggering 76% of providers surveyed reporting symptoms of burnout — an epidemic exacerbated by long hours, understaffing, and financial strain. Imagine working long hours at a pretty thankless job where you’re regularly picking up the slack due to staffing shortages and constantly fighting to prove your worth as an educator to the outside world. At the same time, you’re also dealing with low wages, minimum benefits, and constant worries about making ends meet in your own home. Overtime, it’s you have a sure-fire recipe for burnout.  

As one provider shared with us, “It is very difficult to find people who want to work in childcare. The demands for pay and time are increasing. Burnout is definitely an issue and it’s hard to keep employees longer than six months to a year.”  

To do this work well, child care educators also need to be able to take care of themselves, their families, and their financial obligations. If we are to address the burnout crisis and support the holistic well-being of both child care workers and the children they nurture, we have no choice but to get serious about acknowledging their contributions and compensating them fairly for their work. 

Addressing the Cost: A Call to Action 

Looking at our original number of 91.5% of child care workers being female, it leads one to wonder… if the numbers were flipped and only 8.5% of early childhood educators were female, would the conditions be the same? The value of high-quality education and safe care for our young children demands a level of respect, recognition, and reward that is simply not being shown to child care workers today. We cannot continue to take this work or the women who do it for granted. 

As we observe Equal Pay Day, we can’t overlook the true cost of working in child care. It is imperative that we advocate for systemic changes that prioritize the well-being and professional dignity of child care workers – for the good of the workforce and for the good of our children. 

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