While preschools and child care providers in many parts of California are straining to fill a unmet need, the state’s child care workers are poorly paid and almost twice as likely to live in poverty than workers overall.
California’s child care workers earn significantly less than their school-based counterparts. Given that about 95% of child care workers not based in schools are women, and 53% are African American or Latina (compared with 43% of the overall workforce), women—particularly women of color—are most affected by low pay in the child care workforce.
UC Berkeley found that in 2017, the median hourly wage for child care workers in California was $12.29—just one-third the median wage for kindergarten teachers. Earnings among child care workers track more with low-wage workers across California (defined as those earning less than two-thirds of the median wage). These low wages translate to about a quarter of child care workers living in poverty as compared to 14% of all working adults (ages 18-64)—according to the California Poverty Measure, developed by PPIC and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Low wages are just one piece of the poverty puzzle. Relative to all working adults, child care workers are more likely to have only part-time work (more than a third, compared with less than a quarter of the overall workforce), which is associated with dramatically higher poverty rates than full-time employment. Many have completed some college credit or have an associate’s degree (44%), but just a fifth have a four-year degree, in a workforce where more than a third of working adults have four-year degrees. And while people working in child care are as likely to have children as the average working adult, those who do are more likely to be parenting alone (11%) than the average worker (6%).
The social safety net is an important part of helping child care workers make ends meet. Half of all child care workers benefit from at least one safety net program or tax credit, with the two largest being CalFresh (25%) and the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (37%). Without this assistance, poverty among child care workers would be even higher—2.5 points higher without the Earned Income Tax Credit, and 2.1 points without CalFresh. Minus all major safety net programs, one in three child care workers would live in poverty.
Recent policy changes could start to boost incomes for child care workers. Expanded eligibility for 18–24-year-olds for the state’s new Earned Income Tax Credit, starting in 2019, will specifically help the 20% of the workforce who are under 25. Steady increases in California’s minimum wage could improve earnings of child care workers employed by providers subject to minimum wage laws. Yet many workers are self-employed, providers often operate with limited incomes, and the cost of care itself is already high for low-income families. Minimum wage increases will likely result in a better-paid child care workforce only if they are accompanied by sector-wide changes aimed at making child care both affordable and accessible.
The needs of child care workers will affect efforts to improve and expand California’s complex child care system. While the state and federal governments have begun to increase access to child care with expanded programs and additional funding, improving living standards for child care workers will be a major challenge for California’s next governor.