By the time Tasha Jackson was 9-years-old, she was taking care of her younger siblings. Tasha realized very quickly that she was good at it, and that she loved it. It wasn’t a surprise that Tasha grew up to become an early educator. She took an internship at the Ellis Early Learning Center and has been there ever since. Educating children is her passion.
But during our recent visit to Ellis’ new Jamaica Plain location, Tasha shared a gut-wrenching decision she is facing. Because teaching wages are so low, Tasha worries that she cannot afford to start a family of her own. She lives with her parents and has taken on second and third jobs. But it’s not enough. Choosing a career caring for others’ children means she can’t afford to have her own.
Tasha’s experience as an early educator is unfortunately not unique. Not by a long shot.
The Commonwealth’s early education workforce, which is 92% women and 41% people of color, earn as little as $14 an hour. Approximately 15% of them live in poverty, and a recent study found that 44% of child center teachers have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic.
As Congress considers an unprecedented investment of nearly $400 billion into our national early education and care system as part of the Build Back Better Act, the pivotal role that early educators play must be front and center. We will not solve the child care crisis until we solve the child care workforce crisis.
For families seeking child care, the already bleak landscape is worsening. Pre-pandemic, more than half of Massachusetts residents lived in child care deserts, where there are too few licensed providers for the amount of children in need of care. This disproportionately impacts low-income families. Now, we have 10 percent fewer child care slots than we had before the pandemic.
As Tasha shared her potential need to leave the early childhood sector, she was sitting just a few feet away from an empty classroom. This is no coincidence. Ellis has the space to enroll more families, but cannot until they can afford to hire more teachers.
When early education and care centers cannot adequately staff classrooms, it impacts everyone: Children fall behind, parents are unable to work, small businesses close and the economy suffers. The pandemic has shown that when critical infrastructure like child care is forgotten, everyone suffers.
The impact on women is most stark. Millions of women have left the workforce and nearly one million have stopped working altogether. Lack of child care is a primary barrier standing in their way.
Choosing a career caring for others’ children means she can’t afford to have her own.
It’s time to acknowledge that child care is essential infrastructure. Our current funding model, in which early educators earn poverty wages but parents still cannot afford the cost of care, is unacceptable and unsustainable. We are relying on our early educators’ dedication to subsidize the care solutions our families depend on.
The model must change.
Fortunately, change is within our grasp. The Build Back Better Act, passed last week by the House, ensures that eligible families will not pay more than 7% of their incomes on child care and would make unprecedented investments in raising the wages of early educators. Additionally, in Massachusetts, the Common Start legislation would put the Commonwealth ahead of nearly every other state when it comes to transforming our early education and care sector into a system that offers affordable, high-quality care to families and pays educators the wages they are rightfully due. The bill would increase the affordability and quality of early education and child care by providing funding to help reduce costs for families, while compensating providers for the true cost of providing quality care.
Simply “building back” to the unjust, pre-COVID status quo “normal” is not enough. We owe it to educators, to providers, and to families to finally enact meaningful change that centers the needs of the people. In Washington and here in the Commonwealth, we have the opportunity to make critical investments in child care — and in early educators themselves — and chart a path toward a more just and equitable future for all.
Let’s seize it.