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Child care workers are going hungry: 'We have a dollar store in town and sadly fill up on cheap junk to survive'

By Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, USA TODAY,


BriTanya Bays, a child care worker, glanced at the broccoli leftover on the plate. One of the kids she looked after had left a couple of boiled florets behind.

She rinsed off the scraps and cooked it again for herself.

For Bays, 26, who runs two around-the-clock daycare programs out of her home in Stamford, Texas, skipping meals and bartering to make ends meet has become part of everyday life. This is far from the career she imagined after graduating with a master's degree in education and starting a business to support families in her community.

Bays' struggle isn't unique.

One of every three child care workers in the United States is going hungry ; forcing them to leave the child care industry in droves two years into a pandemic that shuttered daycare . The crisis, driven in part by poor wages and an uneven economic recovery, has created a vicious cycle: child care workers can't put food on the table, forcing them to quit their jobs and leave fewer options for parents who need childcare to work.

"There's this false illusion that we are out of the pandemic, that families have fully recovered when they haven't and parents can't afford to find childcare," said Bays. "On top of that, we're still getting paid dismal wages. It's worse now."

President Joe Biden called on Congress last week to increase federal assistance to child care workers in his State of the Union address .

Biden said the nation needed legislation that would cut child care costs, increase access to daycare subsidized programs and raise workers' minimum wage to $15—key parts of his $800 billion Build Back Better social spending bill that remains gridlocked in the Senate.

More than 53% of child care workers are on some form of public assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, according to a report by the Center for Early Childhood Innovation in Columbus, Ohio.

This, in addition to stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment, increases to SNAP allotments and the child tax credit reimbursement, kept child care workers afloat. But now many of these policies have lapsed, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

"The fact that many of these essential workers will continue to struggle with poverty-level wages reinforces how important it is to have bigger policy changes," said Waxman.
BriTanya Bays, 26, who runs two around-the-clock daycare programs out of her home in Stamford, Texas, said skipping meals and bartering to make ends meet has become a part of daily life. Courtesy/BriTanya Bays

Child care workers are among lowest paid

Most days, Bays' workday is 16 hours long.

Parents knock on her door around 7 a.m. to drop off their children. Many of her clients are low-income and immigrant workers who rely on child care subsidies to leave kids in daycare.

Child care costs on average $9,000 a year per child — and can be as expensive as paying for college. In many cases, the majority of earnings in licensed centers goes to pay brick-and-mortar costs such as rent, insurance and utilities, not employees' salaries.

Parents of some 1.4 million children pay for child care services through the use of federal U.S. Department of Health and Human Services voucher programs managed by each state.

But child care voucher reimbursement rates are capped, meaning workers like Bays only get paid a fraction of what she could earn in the private market. Bays earns approximately $3 per child per day about $437 a week and doesn't get more money for overtime.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for a child care worker was below $12.25 per hour, with many making barely above minimum wage. For child care workers with a college degree, salaries get a $2.50 bump up to $14.70 per hour – half the average hourly earnings of people with a bachelor's degree in other professions.

"Low-income workers, who lack bargaining power, don’t have the leverage to bargain for higher wages in the labor market," said Asha Banerjee, an analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Roughly three-quarters of child care providers work from their homes. Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Treasury reported there were roughly 115,000 licensed childcare centers and 90,000 licensed home-based child care providers. Roughly 1.1 million were unlisted providers, such as nannies.

Over 96% of all childcare workers are women, and 45% are Black, Asian American and Latina.

Wendoly Marte, director of economic justice for Community Change, a national organizing group for low-income people based in Washington, D.C., said women are being left behind in the country's economic recovery in more ways than one.

"Child care providers and educators have been hit hard by COVID and are struggling to feed their own families and pay their own bills to stay afloat at home,” said Marte.

Last year, Congress earmarked $39 billion for the child care industry as part of the COVID-19 emergency relief package. The funding was disbursed as grants to cover operating expenses as daycare centers faced losses due to sharp declines in enrollment. The funding also increased child care subsidies for parents that historically had not been able to qualify for assistance.

But it did not increase child care workers' historically low wages.

What's more, child care workers often don't have paid benefits such as health insurance or paid leave. In part, this has to do with historic gender and racial discrimination that dates back to the 1930s New Deal. Domestic workers, who were often Black women, were left outside of labor protections and were barred from being able to form unions.

"The biggest driver of food insecurity for the child care workforce is not wage discrimination, it is the reality that our child care market does not support decent wages for these workers and never has," said Gina Adams, senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Resources, and Population at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

In the afternoon, Bays runs another after-school program serving hot lunches for school-age kids with the help of a grant.

That's also how she manages to feed her three-year-old twins.

But even then, Bays said, she ends up spending her own benefits to help her business. Earlier this month, she used $331 of her monthly SNAP allotment of $668 to buy food for the children under her care.

"I've had to find other sources of food income, including using food pantries and parent donations, to support the food quota for the program and even supplement my own lack of groceries," Bays said.
A toddler eats lunch at BriTanya Bays' daycare program in Stamford, Texas. Bays is among the 33% of child care workers in the United States going hungry; forcing them to leave the childcare industry in droves. Courtesy/BriTanya Bays

Inflation is increasing food insecurity for childcare workers

Another problem is that $1 doesn't go as far as it used to.

Tanna Berg, a child care worker in Hondo, Texas has felt the pinch.

Inflation hit a 40-year high in January, hammering everyday Americans as costs continue to soar in staples such as food and rent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index jumped 7.5% last month compared with 12 months earlier, making it the steepest year-over-year increase since 1982.

Berg, a 37-year-childcare veteran, said she thought the worst of the economic downturn was over and she could ride out inflation. After all, she had faced difficult times before in the industry.

She started paying for groceries with credit cards to keep providing meals for the kids she looks after. Those got maxed out. Then she couldn't afford to make the monthly minimum payments on her credit cards.

Or eat.

"We have a dollar store in town and sadly fill up on cheap junk to survive," said Berg. "Not the best choice, but it fills the belly."

At 60 years old, Berg expected to be preparing for retirement. Instead, she is terrified.

"I'm currently not making enough money to live. I am trying to hold out to see if things improve, but if they do not improve soon, I will have to close my business and acquire a couple of part-time jobs," Berg said.
Carla Hart, a long-time child care worker at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Child Day Care Center in Harrisonburg, Va., reads a story to two kids in her class who just got up from a nap. Inflation in food and child care costs has deepened the shortage of child care workers. Ian Munro, AP

Sabrina Gines, 50, a child care worker in Jacksonville, Florida, has relied mostly on SNAP and food banks to eat in recent months. She was unable to cook Christmas dinner for her family.

"We had to choose between either paying rent or eating," said Gines.

Other workers like Jeanette Potts,62, shuttered her at-home daycare in Muldrow, Oklahoma, because without children attending, she couldn't keep up with expenses.

When she lost her daycare kids, she also lost the parents who would buy her a meal once a week, making a huge difference for her family.

"We have had days where we eat potatoes, oatmeal or beans," said Potts. "We have gone to the schools for their summer feeding programs.  We have gone to food giveaways."

Hunger is the reason thousands of child care workers like Berg, Gines and Potts are either debating or have already left the child care sector.

There are child care worker shortages in every state, in some cases as high as 90%, according to a survey of child care centers and providers across the United States by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a national early childhood education non-profit organization .

The impact is profound.

A report released Tuesday by Wells Fargo economists found nearly half a million families have been left without reliable child care options .

To make things worse, inflation is not only raising food prices, but child care costs, further deepening the crisis. When the cost of sending a kid to daycare is more expensive than bringing in a paycheck, many parents are forced to forego outside childcare.

The growth in child-care prices exceeded the annual rate of inflation in 2020 and 2019, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit network of more than 400 agencies to help people access child care.

Inflation, low wages and workforce shortages are making it so that the industry cannot recover and offer pre-pandemic levels of child care to American families, said Mario Cardona, chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America.

"These staff shortages are causing such emotional distress among the existing child care workforce that one in five early educators is considering leaving the child care field entirely," Cardona said.

Meanwhile, Bays continues to juggle the demands of her daycare and feeding her family and finding ways to organize with other child care workers.

She said that without a massive overhaul to the child care industry, care workers won't survive.

"We're struggling to put food on our tables," said Bays. "We want to sit at the tables where those policies are being made and actually influence them so that we can eat well–or at least eat enough, right?"
"My plan will cut the cost in half for most families and help parents, including millions of women, who left the workforce during the pandemic because they couldn’t afford child care to be able to get back to work," President Joe Biden said March 1, 2022, in his State of the Union address. AP

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Child care workers are going hungry: 'We have a dollar store in town and sadly fill up on cheap junk to survive'

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