Research demonstrates the value of high-quality care for young children,...

Research demonstrates the value of high-quality care for young children, particularly children from low-income families. Credit: Morgan Campbell

During the COVID-19 outbreak, when men were home with their children, child care was a national crisis, and early child care educators were recognized as essential. As people returned to work, society's appreciation for these educators faded again.

Child care worker exploitation began when Black women were enslaved laborers and other immigrant indentured servants cared for white children without pay. The meager wages these women still earn today highlights the undervaluing of their work to care for and educate young children.

In New York, publicly funded child care is paid partly from a federal block grant. Until 2014, federal guidelines recommended that providers be paid at least 75% of the average market rates educators charged private-pay parents. Statewide surveys conducted every two years ask centers and family child care programs to report the rates charged to families typically living in their county. New York covers child care assistance for eligible families at 80% of rates charged to private pay families, which becomes the subsidy rate and further tightens budgets for child care programs.

In economically disadvantaged communities, these rates are problematic. We know we cannot charge more than families can afford. Also, these rates don’t adjust annually according to inflation and cost of living, perpetuating low reimbursement rates.

In 2014, federal law was amended to enable states to pay caregivers based on a true-cost-of-care model. However, New York still uses the pre-2014 market rate model. What other job would pay someone a percentage of what it cost to do their job from the past two years? Unless there is deflation, this impoverishes providers. The workforce remains just above poverty and programs are consistently threatened with closing. This has created a continuous caste of professional educators who work overtime and remain eligible for social services benefits, like SNAP, HEAP, or New York State Health Care. They must work every day to make ends meet, but walk a fine line to not jeopardize their eligibility to maintain food, water, shelter, and quality of life for their families.

Washington, D.C. and New Mexico now use a cost estimation method that considers the true cost of care and modeling strategies to predict future costs of care. New York must adopt this payment model and compensate child care educators fairly.

Research demonstrates the value of high-quality care for young children, particularly children from low-income families. New York chooses to continue to exploit women of color who care for and educate our children for very little pay. We have more than 60 years of professional child care experience in low-income communities and have lived these challenges. Despite our education and training, we’ve endured the stress of trying to keep the lights on and pay the rent.

For the 2024-25 budget, Empire State Campaign for Child Care prioritizes using new state money to establish a permanent fund that would supplement wages for this workforce, adding to the usual substandard pay rates. At $1.2 billion, it’s a small step toward adopting the cost-of-care model, which would reflect the current cost of quality programs compared to the outdated market rate model based on community economics.

We must move past our racist and sexist history recognizing that child care is indeed early education and we are true professionals — business owners, administrators, educators, and caregivers — owed all of the respect and remuneration that educators deserve.

This guest essay reflects the views of Elizabeth Palley, Adelphi University professor in the School of Social Work; Shanita Bowen, chief operating officer of ECE On the Move; and Vonetta Rhodes, co-founder of the Western New York Child Care Action Team.


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