Investing in early care and education (ECE) yields positive benefits for everyone: children can be cared for in nurturing educational environments that will help them begin school ready to learn and grow into productive citizens; parents can go to work with the peace of mind that their children are in good hands and be even more productive employees as a result; and employers reap the rewards of more productive employees—both now and in the future.

However, there is next to no government support for ECE work in the United States. The U.S. government currently spends significantly less than most peer nations on early care and education. France, New Zealand, the Nordic countries and the United Kingdom spend over 1 percent of GDP on early care and education, while the United States spends less than 0.5 percent of GDP. As a result, the 2.2 million teachers and caregivers in the ECE workforce are earning among the lowest wages of any occupation.

In our Century Foundation report “Quality Jobs, Quality Child Care,” we argue that the United States needs to make a significant public investment in early care and education. ECE employees and their families are long overdue for an increase in the wages and benefits of this critical work. And raising the quality of jobs in the ECE workforce will have a major impact on producing the high-quality care that children need to have a real chance to thrive in school and in life.

Here are they key facts behind the need for greater public investment in ECE.

Voices Video: Preschool teacher Elizabeth Rubio discusses the challenges of pay and the realities of working in early care and education.

The Current State of Jobs in ECE

Although teachers and caregivers in the ECE workforce are tasked with the important job of nurturing and educating children, they are compensated with low pay and poor benefits.

  • Wages are substandard throughout the ECE workforce, at all levels of education and experience. The government classifies ECE workers into two main occupations, child care workers and preschool teachers. Average wages for child care workers were just $10.72 per hour in 2015. This puts the wages of these frontline workers in the lives of America’s children below 97 percent of those of all occupations in the economy, comparable to the wages of fast food cooks (who receive an average of $9.43 per hour) and cashiers (who receive an average of $10.10 per hour). Preschool teachers’ median wages are only moderately better than child care workers, at $13.74 per hour. Moreover, preschool teachers earn far less than those responsible for the education of slightly older kindergarteners, even when those teachers have similar educational credentials. (Kindergarten teachers have median annual earnings of $51,640, compared to just $28,750 for preschool teachers, and preschool teachers with a bachelor’s degree or higher still make only about 50–80 percent of the median kindergarten teacher salary, depending on their setting.)
  • Few ECE teachers and caregivers receive health or retirement benefits from their job. Only about one in four ECE teachers and caregivers receive employer provided health insurance or retirement benefits paid partly by the employer, and they are only half as likely as employees in general to be offered health insurance coverage.

The High Cost of Low Compensation for the ECE Workforce

Poor compensation of the ECE workforce takes a toll on the economic well-being of ECE teachers and their families and leads to high turnover in the field. Moreover, the government actually bears major hidden costs of the meager spending in this sector.

  • ECE teachers and caregivers report high levels of worry about their family’s economic security and well-being. In a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, roughly three out of four ECE teachers worried that they would not have enough money to pay their monthly bills, and half of all teachers worried about having enough food for their families.
  • Members of the ECE workforce frequently cannot afford child care for their own children. According to recent data, there is no state in which ECE employees’ average earnings are high enough, when compared with the average cost of child care, to meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ standard of affordable child care (spending 10 percent or less of a family’s income on child care).
  • Low wages cause turnover rates that are exceptionally high in the ECE workforce. Half of all child care centers report experiencing some turnover within the prior year. One in-depth study found that half of teachers and center directors had left their jobs within four years. Furthermore, half of those who leave a child care job do not come back to the field.
  • The U.S. government spends $2.4 billion per year on public benefits to low-wage working families in the child care industry. Just under half of all early care and education workers rely on at least one major public benefit program (TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, or EITC), and about 15 percent receive government health insurance.

The Benefits of a Well-Compensated ECE Workforce

Research shows that investing in the ECE workforce yields higher quality care and education for children.

  • Better compensation fosters a more stable and skilled ECE workforce. Multiple studies over the past several decades have pointed out the importance of pay and working conditions in boosting the quality of services for young children—largely connected to the ability to attract and retain a talented workforce. In 1989, the National Child Care Staffing Study by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment was the first study to identify wages as a predictor of quality. Subsequently, a 2001 study of child care centers in Massachusetts found that higher wages were closely related to better-quality care. Around that same time, another study that looked at over one hundred child care centers in Boston, Central Virginia, and Atlanta found that teacher wages had the strongest connection to classroom quality—more so than staffing ratios, teacher training, and group size. An earlier study designed to examine the relationships between the cost of child care and the nature and effects of children’s child care experiences found that teaching staff wages and teacher–student ratios were the most significant factors in predicting classroom quality in programs in California, Colorado, Connecticut, and North Carolina. This finding held up when controlling for education, special training, and experience of the teachers. Yet another study of California child care centers found that centers that offered higher wages were more successful in retaining qualified teachers. That longitudinal study, which followed changes over time, found that higher wages were also linked to higher-quality services, because centers were better able to attract and retain staff.
  • Consistent relationships with stable, responsible adults are important for children’s healthy development. Economist Nancy Folbre notes, “children who form close relationships with teachers tend to show better language skills and more sociability and to demonstrate fewer behavior problems than those who do not, and close relationships require a certain minimum threshold continuity of care.” Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child also reports that high staff turnover can lead to children feeling insecure and unstable about whether their needs will be met.