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Average pay for La. childcare workers ‘insufficient’ to meet basic needs, report says

Prekindergarten students at KIPP Central City Primary on Oct. 2, 2020.
Aubri Juhasz
Prekindergarten students at KIPP Central City Primary on Oct. 2, 2020.

Nearly one-third of early childcare workers in Louisiana are considering quitting their jobs. The reason? Low pay. Most workers in the industry make less than $15 an hour.

That’s according to a recent study from the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children (LPIC), which surveyed a broad group of professionals who work with children under 5 years old in settings like day care centers, preschools and prekindergarten programs.

The study also found that much of the industry’s workforce is highly educated.

Candace Weber, LPIC’s partnerships director, told Louisiana Considered host Karen Henderson that over 80% of people who care for and educate young children in Louisiana have at least an early childhood credential or certification. About 30% have a bachelor's degree or higher.

The workers surveyed included program directors, teachers, office staff and those in janitorial or other support roles.

“They are highly credentialed, they're educated, they love what they do,” Weber said. “But the average rate of pay in the early care and education sector is really insufficient to support them.”

Low pay is especially a problem for those with children of their own — many of whom find they simply don’t earn enough to make ends meet.

A Louisiana household, with two parents working full-time, supporting two children, needs both parents to make at least $22 an hour to support their family’s basic needs, according to research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A high percentage of early childcare workers also have student debt. “This is the same group that experiences high levels of food insecurity and poverty rates,” Weber said.

Louisiana is not alone in underpaying its early child care workforce. The profession is one of the most underpaid fields in the country, according to a 2020 report from Center for the Study of Childcare Employment, which found “early educators face severe pay penalties for working with younger children in all states.” The report found the poverty rate for early educators was nearly eight times higher than for middle and elementary school teachers.

The profession is also one in which there are significant pay disparities by race.

Nationwide, Black early care educators make about $0.78 less per hour than their white colleagues, the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment found. Over half of Louisiana’s early child care professionals are Black, according to the LPIC study.

The problem goes beyond teacher pay and underscores fundamental issues in the industry. The Center for American Progress found the average child care facility in the United States had a profit margin of just 1%, while many families struggle to afford the high cost of early childhood care.

Experts say both problems require government intervention.

Weber advocates for a “three-pronged approach” to increase public funding. “It has to happen at the local, state and federal levels to be successful and sustainable.”

While Louisiana lawmakers recently proposed cutting funding for early childhood education by $24 million next year, other states, even those with Republican majorities, have been successful in adopting policies to support workers and parents of young children.

When faced with a critical shortage of early child care professionals, Kentucky began offering free childcare to those who work in the industry — a strategy that has helped increase staffing.

Several school districts in New Jersey also saw far-reaching benefits when they reformed their struggling preschools, including by requiring salary parity for pre-K and kindergarten teachers — a change that dramatically increased pay for pre-K educators.

“If we support early care and education, it trickles up to everything else that happens with these children,” said Sonjia Brown-Joseph, owner and executive director of Clara’s Little Lambs Preschool Academy in New Orleans.

“They do better in school. You know, we have lower incarceration rates. All these positive things happen when children have a good, solid foundation,” she said.

Brown-Joseph runs three early learning centers in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood and employs about 50 workers. The schools rely on a mixture of city and state funding to supplement tuition and remain accessible to parents of various income levels. She stressed the importance of providing young children with a strong social and educational foundation that will prepare them to succeed and live happy lives.

She also pointed out the degree to which parents — and the entire state economy — depends upon early child care.

“People cannot go to work if they don't have child care,” she said. “It is one of the most valuable commodities we have. And these teachers sacrifice a lot to be able to provide quality care and education so that parents have the ability to go to work.”