The Economics Behind the Waiting List for Day Care

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That’s the typical hourly pay for child care workers, a wage providers admit is far too low to attract and keep their staff, especially now.

Hamstrung by the economics of child care, providers say they’re caught in the middle, unable to raise wages to a competitive level without hiking their prices to levels unaffordable to families. The catch-22 is one of the main tenets of President Joe Biden’s proposal to not only subsidize child care costs for low- and middle-income households, but boost the minimum hourly pay for workers in the sector to $15. Democratic lawmakers are currently crafting legislation along those lines as part of a massive proposed expansion of the social safety net.

The $12.24, the median pay for a child care worker in 2020, is far below the $20.17 median pay for all types of workers, according to government data, and the disparity is one of the primary contributors to a worsening staffing shortage. Workers have determined they can make better money almost anywhere else, leading to long waiting lists for families, providers say.

“They tell me, ‘I love the job, I love the kids, but I just can’t continue to work for $10, $11, or $12 an hour for those entry-level positions when I can make $16 to $18 doing something else,’” said Nicole Fetherman, executive director of LifeSpan School and Day Care, a child care provider with three locations in and around Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

Indeed, the number of child care workers plunged when the pandemic hit, and despite rebounding from the crush of initial lockdowns, never fully recovered and is now going in the wrong direction. The workforce has been shrinking since June, according to recent government data and is now 12% smaller than before the pandemic.

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