The blog of the Urban Institute
October 28, 2021

The Pandemic Exacerbated the Child Care Crisis. How Can States Reverse the Trend?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of child care for families with young children, but it has also exposed the child care crisis that existed long before March 2020.

Early childhood educators have a critical role in society. They provide children the warmth, attention, and education they need for healthy growth and development. They enable parents to work and earn wages to support their families, and early care helps strengthen the economy.

But even before the pandemic, early childhood educators were undervalued. In 2019, the median wage for child care workers ($24,230) was less than half that of kindergarten teachers ($56,850).

This exacerbates the gender pay gap because nearly all child care workers are women and 40 percent are women of color. And because of structural racism, women of color have historically faced barriers to educational and professional developmental opportunities accessible to their white counterparts. Early childhood educators are already among the lowest-paid workers, and Black and Hispanic educators make the lowest wages among this group.

The pandemic exacerbated these racial inequities. It weakened early childhood educators’ financial stability and well-being, especially for those who were temporarily laid off without pay. Staff in programs that could not afford to close have been facing increased exposure risk for low wages to provide the care that allows people to work.

To address this crisis, the federal government is urging states (PDF) to use stimulus funds to support the early childhood workforce.

Recently, the Urban Institute released two reports, funded with support from the Foundation for Child Development, that underscore the urgency of challenges facing the early childhood workforce and offer evidence-based approaches to address these challenges. The first presents research on the workforce before the pandemic and recommends strategies to address today’s challenges. The second focuses on racial, economic, and social justice for the early childhood workforce and spans the period before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

 As states seek to address these challenges, they can look to the following evidence-based solutions we elevate in our new reports.

  • Distribute public funds equitably and account for structural racism. Substantial public investments are needed to increase compensation and improve working conditions for early childhood educators. To achieve this, the federal government recommends (PDF) that states use stimulus funds to improve child care subsidy payment rates to providers, increase staff wages, offer retention bonuses, and provide benefits including paid leave, health insurance, child care, and retirement benefits.
    But if states want to prioritize equity and account for structural racism, they should consider focusing on communities that have historically been excluded to mitigate the stress caused by low wages and benefits. States could provide funds specifically for early educators serving communities of color (PDF) and those who serve infants and toddlers, segments of the workforce in which women of color are disproportionally represented.
  • Use stimulus and other public funds to improve early childhood educator economic well-being. Currently, wages are low and, in many settings, vary based on children’s attendance. Increasing and stabilizing wages could improve educators’ emotional and economic well-being and could stem the flow of educators leaving the workforce.
  • Spend stimulus funds on early childhood educator professional development activities that provide scholarships for coursework, pay staff for time off to participate in training, and offer apprenticeships and other alternative pathways that lead to credentials or degrees. This professional development, training, and coursework can improve workforce quality and increase the number of early childhood educators available to care for young children.

    Our research recommends that investments support degree attainment and ensure members of racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups who have traditionally been marginalized have access to education and advancement. And policymakers could support research that uses a racial equity lens and focuses on strengths over deficits.
  • Devote stimulus funds to activities that address staff well-being. Strategies to increase the well-being of the early childhood workforce—including mentoring and coaching, offering mental health consultation for early childhood staff and providers, and supporting stronger networks of providers to strengthen relationships—can alleviate early educators’ stress, strengthen the quality of their care, and support retention to the field.

After more than a year and a half of the pandemic, early childhood educators are quitting in large numbers. To better support this workforce and reverse the trend, states can use federal funds to execute these research-based solutions.

Transforming child care jobs into good jobs with equitable pay and benefits can help advance racial equity, strengthen the workforce, help families, and ensure children get the quality of care and attention they need to thrive.


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