Report: California Parents Can't Afford to Pay More for Child Care – Workers Can't Make a Living

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Kids at Alexander Preschool and Child Care in Elk Grove eat breakfast. (Katie Orr/KQED)

Child care provider Pat Alexander has been in the industry for nearly 50 years. She and her husband currently run an in-home child care center outside Sacramento. And still, after all these years, she’s barely making ends meet.

"After our deductions and our business expenses, our salary was close to $24,000 for two of us," she said.

Alexander’s situation is the norm, according to a new report released Tuesday from the Economic Policy Institute and UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Overall, the report finds California’s early educators are six times as likely as K–12 teachers to live in poverty.

“Parents want to have high quality for their kids but they often can't afford it," said Elise Gould, who co-authored the report. "And the other side of that is early educators are expected to underwrite the costs of the broken child care system with their low wages.”

The economics of the system don't add up. For example, Alexander currently charges about $600 a month for care. She can't charge more because she needs to stay competitive. But that means she can't afford to hire an assistant or pay herself for all the hours she spends planning lessons, shopping for supplies and cleaning up after the kids.


Gould said child care centers face cost burdens as well — including for renting the space.

"You need to staff a center for as long as it takes for parents to be able to drop off their kids, then transport themselves to work, work their full day, and then be able to get back and pick up their kids at the end of the day," she said, which can add up to a 12-hour day for child care workers.

Parents face their own economic challenges, too. The report finds center-based infant care costs the typical family in the state 25% of their annual income. The average fee for full-time child care in California ranges from $11,200 a year for a 4-year-old to $16,500 a year for an infant.

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Gould and her co-authors suggested that lawmakers overhaul the child care system. They recommend funding professional development for early education teachers and paying them in line with what K-12 teachers make. Incorporating those changes, and others, would cost money. The report estimates a revamped system would cost between about $30 billion and $75 billion a year.

Letting the system continue as it is hurts everyone, Gould said.

"If teachers aren't doing well, if they're experiencing stress because of their low pay, then that's going to factor into the quality (of care) that those children are getting," she said.

And Gould points out the early childhood workforce is largely made up of women, who she said are undervalued for the work they do.

"I think that there's an undervaluing in terms of the teaching of young children. Undervaluing of what has been historically women's work — historically women of color doing that work," she said.

The Legislature is considering several bills aimed at improving the early child care system. The legislation includes an effort to let in-home providers unionize, and requiring more training for child care workers.