In the last few years, bipartisanship has come to seem more like a practice from folklore than any political reality that would pass through legislative buildings today. So it means something when a body of elected officials in the U.S. votes unanimously to approve a bill.
And it meant something earlier this month when Maine’s state legislature voted 130 to 0 on a proposal to supplement the wages of child care workers.
That level of buy-in and support has become increasingly rare. But after two years of a pandemic that has raised awareness about the challenges of child care workers, and also heightened those challenges, many Americans have a better grasp of just how valuable—and yet undervalued—early childhood educators are. That goes for policymakers, too.
Pandemic relief funding helped assuage some of the burden on the field, allowing child care programs—which, in many cases, are privately operated small businesses—to remain open, and giving providers a little extra money with which to boost the pay of its staff. But it was no panacea. Relief funds, such as those allocated from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, have an expiration date. It is not something child care providers or workers can count on indefinitely.
Many in the field, along with advocates, parents and the general public, were looking to Biden’s Build Back Better plan to provide a more permanent solution. The bill contains a number of provisions that would improve conditions for the early childhood field and workforce, including setting a higher minimum wage for those who work in child care settings (the median wage nationally is around $11.65 per hour). It would also alleviate some of the financial burden on the part of parents, who are in some cases paying more per month for child care than they spend on housing.
Yet for months now, Build Back Better has been stalled in Congress. With a gridlocked senate and a few critical holdouts, its future is uncertain. And in this case, that’s not just some wonky policy talk. The uncertainty means parents, providers and early childhood educators everywhere are left in limbo, with parents unable to afford quality care, and staff unable to cover their basic expenses with near-poverty-level wages.
‘It Does Come Down to Dollars and Cents’
Maine is one of a number of states that have moved to improve the pay of those who work in early childhood education.
In Maine, the state legislature approved—and the governor signed off on—more than $12 million in ongoing funding to supplement the pay for all child care workers in the state. In effect, that comes out to about $200 more per month for each educator.
“It’s not life changing,” says Dan Wuori, senior director of early learning at the Hunt Institute, “but it’s an important step, a way to recognize that child care is an industry that enables all other industries.”
Ryan Fecteau, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and sponsor of the bill, acknowledges that this supplement doesn’t bring the pay of the early childhood workforce to where it should be. (In Maine, the median wage of a child care worker in 2019 was $12.89 per hour, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.)
“This is a workforce that has historically been far, far too undervalued for the work they do,” Fecteau says. “I don’t think there’s really any wage supplement the legislature could pass that would reflect the true value of this workforce. It’s a boost that stabilizes this industry.”
But Fecteau insists the increase is not insignificant. He has heard from child care workers throughout the state who left their jobs in early care and education—jobs they loved and felt “called to,” he notes—for the department store or restaurant down the road that could offer a couple dollars more per hour. “For a lot of child care workers, it does come down to dollars and cents.”
With the governor’s approval of the supplemental budget last week, Maine made permanent this investment, which had first gone into effect last year using American Rescue Plan dollars and was set to expire in the fall.
“We want people to understand that early childhood education is not babysitting,” Fecteau adds. “This is a critical job for families and the development of children. By making this statewide investment of $12.5 million, we are making it clear to child care workers and families and employers that this is a job that is critical to everything we do in society. And hopefully we’re sending a message to future child care workers that this is a profession that could be viable for them.”
States Aren’t Waiting Anymore
Neighboring states in the northeast corridor are considering—or have already passed—legislation of their own that will aid child care workers. Efforts are underway in Massachusetts and New York, Wuori says—and indeed, states across the country have introduced bills or are looking into the issue. In Washington, D.C., the city council recently approved one-time payments between $10,000 and $14,000 to child care workers, one step in a larger plan that aims to lift the wages in the industry.
Connecticut is considering early childhood wage supplements of its own, though the outcome of the budget discussions in the state legislature still hangs in the balance, says Maggie Adair, director of government and community relations at the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood. The legislative session adjourns on Wednesday, May 4.
“It’s the first time in a long time legislators are really understanding the glaring need to raise wages,” says Adair.
She adds: “This is not unique to Connecticut. It’s a national problem. Early childhood workers are among the lowest paid workers of any job. It’s a structural problem—a market system that is broken. You can’t ask parents to pay more. They, too, are strapped.”
The budget discussions in Connecticut reflect the greater awareness and understanding that the public now has about early childhood education. But they also reveal the urgency around making permanent some of the funding that has been available to early childhood educators since the start of the pandemic.
Deb Flis, a co-director at the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, speaks of the “benefits cliff” that child care providers face in the not-too-distant future, given the temporary nature of American Rescue funds.
“The staff are faced with a drop-off of that funding, so they can’t plan for it and they can’t live on it for an extended period of time,” Flis explains. “It may take care of some really critical expenses, and help them stay in the job they’re in, but when those dollars run out, that’s when this legislative package becomes really important.”
Wuori at the Hunt Institute believes there is still a “high likelihood” that Congress will act on early childhood in some way, though the details—when, what, how—remain elusive. “I’d be very surprised to see that Congress hasn’t taken some substantial action eight months from now,” he says.
Still, Wuori adds, that situation remains as unpredictable as ever. And in the meantime, the efforts by states are both encouraging and significant.
He notes: “I think that’s a reflection on just how important [child care] is on the workforce and to the states’ economies.”