In April 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my grandmother left Trinidad and Tobago in search of opportunity. At 27 years old, having never stepped foot off the island, she left behind her husband, three young children, and her homeland and landed in a country beset by turmoil and teeming with rage and civil unrest. Like many immigrants before and after her, all she had was hope that this massive risk would lead to a better life for her and her family.
I learned recently that her first job in the United States was as a child care worker, paid at $1.60 an hour, the minimum wage at the time. As a former early childhood teacher and current child advocate, this information gives my work new significance. I adjusted her wages for inflation and found that she would be making $12.13 an hour in 2020 dollars.
Yet today, child care workers make an average $9.77 per hour, about 20% less than the equivalent of what my grandmother made 52 years ago. Annual compensation now averages $20,320, half the survival budget needed for a parent with an infant in Louisiana, according to United Way’s ALICE Report.
My grandmother’s experience working in child care echoes that of countless women, particularly Black women, today: leaving their own children behind to take care of children from wealthier families with long hours, disrespect for the work, high physical and compassion demands, and egregiously low pay.
This will not change until we root out the inequality that is inherent in the system. Our patriarchal norms have perpetually devalued women and their contributions to society. I realize that as a man, I will never understand the full scope of this, but I have seen over and over that anything deemed “women’s work” has been treated thusly in both compensation and prestige.
This has enabled a status quo where child care is not subsidized like other public goods (police departments, libraries, post offices, fire departments or K-12 education systems) with collective resources and community stakes. Instead, we subsidize it by paying incredibly low wages to the dedicated people — over 90% of them women — who do this work. The burden falls disproportionately on the backs of Black women who make up a majority of the child care workforce.
Much like the 40% of child care workers who leave the field each year, my grandmother also left her child care job after only nine months to seek better employment. This attrition rate dampens national and state efforts to continuously improve quality of care. The pandemic has exacerbated this trend; according to a June statewide survey of child care centers, 37% reported that some of their employees were unwilling to return to work. How can we ask these women to return to now-dangerous work for poverty wages and no health insurance amidst a global pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly underlined an undeniable truth: Child care is the invisible backbone of our society. Just ask anyone who has been trying to work and parent at the same time for the last seven months.
Louisiana should follow the lead of states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and New Mexico, which are using federal relief dollars to provide child care workers with enhanced pandemic pay. Policies like this would benefit an estimated 7,700 child care workers statewide and provide a meaningful incentive to return to work. The Agenda for Children’s newest policy brief highlights ways to competitively compensate our workers who continue to put themselves at risk to support Louisiana’s children, families, and economy — now and in the future post-COVID.
Fifty-two years ago, my grandmother moved to this country amidst civic instability hoping for a better life. We find ourselves in a similar moment; our society is in a state of upheaval as millions demand change and a move toward a more equitable society. Let’s ensure that it doesn’t take another half century for these women to get their due.
Kenny Francis is director of policy & advocacy with Agenda For Children.