The Forgotten Essential Workers: Women of Color in Child Care
As politicians and pundits rightfully praise essential workers during this pandemic, rarely does anyone mention another group of genuine heroes: those who care for the children of other essential workers. Could it be that because these workers are disproportionately women of color, their service is overlooked and undervalued? While women of color represent only 20% of the American population, they comprise 40% of the roughly 1.5 million child care workers in the United States.
This pandemic has exacerbated the existing inequities in the child care system. The average wage in 2018 for those employed in child care centers was $11.17 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hardly a living wage. Nearly 15% of child care workers live below the artificially low “official” poverty line, more than double the rate of other industries, and 85% do not have health insurance.
The child care system also reflects the structural inequities that create larger disadvantages and increased vulnerability during this pandemic. Many women of color who operate child care are small businesses owners who are already limited by low levels of personal wealth and challenges in accessing business credit, and many now face immediate or near-term risks due to the pandemic that is affecting half of all small businesses with employees.
Our economy and our health rely on these essential workers, now more than ever. The child care industry in the U.S. has a total economic impact of almost $100 billion, yet this immeasurable value is not reflected in their wages or benefits, or in our policy infrastructure that fails to adequately invest in their professional development, business security or sustainability.
There are also disparities in access to remote work and social distancing for many of the parents and children that child care providers serve. Less than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home. The jobs these parents have are often essential, high risk, low paying, and don’t offer health insurance or other benefits. These essential workers are doubly at risk considering the providers who care for their children are in jeopardy of losing their businesses and health as well.
Child care is not optional for essential workers and it is our ethical imperative to ensure their children receive high-quality care while they are serving the community. We need to support the licensed child care providers who elect to care for the children of first responders, health care workers, grocery store clerks and other essential personnel. These child care providers are putting their own, and their families’, health at risk by serving us through this pandemic. We must provide them with the health and safety resources they need.
Congress has begun to acknowledge the essential role that child care plays during this public health emergency by including $3.5 billion in child care funding to states in the stabilization legislation that was signed into law in late March. This “down payment,” if distributed quickly, will provide much-needed help to the child care system in the short term, but as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tina Smith (D-MN) outline in their recent plan, at least $50 billion is needed to keep our child care infrastructure from crumbling. We encourage bipartisan support of this plan to ensure both minority child care workers and the entire child care industry are not left behind.
Going forward, we must consider the impact of structural and historical racism on inequities experienced by minority child care providers and business owners. We must make sure new policies address these inequities. Even though we are both women of color, we acknowledge we are also women of privilege. We are fortunate to have many of the benefits that most child care workers lack. As a result, we have a voice — and child care workers deserve one too. Providers of color must have a stake in designing the post-COVID-19 child care infrastructure. Acknowledging their voices will lead to more diverse and better results for all of us.
We must bolster accessibility of quality child care now, which ensures the future sustainability of a diverse, qualified, and well-compensated child care workforce for the future. Our businesses and communities depend on child care through the best and worst of times, and it is about time we give them the attention, support and investment deserving of a workforce whose core mission is to care for our nation’s future: our children.
Lynette M. Fraga, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Child Care Aware® of America, a national nonprofit organization working to advance a high-quality, affordable child care system. Renée Boynton-Jarrett, M.D., Sc.D. is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, a social epidemiologist, and a member of the Board of Child Care Aware® of America.