Last November, for the first time, Kansas City child care workers spoke out about their low wages, as they officially joined fast food and other low wage workers in the Fight for 15, a movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
One worker involved in the movement is 30-year-old Kimmy DeVries. She works for a local Head Start program, where she and other care providers follow a relatively rigorous care and education program.
At $10.32 an hour, she’s struggling to stay afloat. That’s what lead her to join the rally in November. She feels she deserves more for the work she does.
“You know on an airplane they tell you, you have to put on your own mask first before you help the person next to you,” DeVries says. “Well, I don’t have my own air mask on, so how am I supposed to help teach the kids at the most effective level if I don’t have all the tools to be successful that I need?”
According to a recent report released by the Economic Policy Institute, child care workers make wages around 40 percent below the median hourly wage of workers in other professions — that’s $10.31 an hour, almost exactly the wage DeVries makes. This amounts to an income of about $21,000 per year, which, according to that report, isn’t enough. In the Kansas City area, a single person needs $27,000 just to get by. And that’s just for rent, food and healthcare, among other basic needs.
On average, child care workers across the nation earn a living that places them far below the poverty line. And yet, the services they provide are incredibly expensive. In many areas, enrolling an infant in a center-based program for a year actually costs more than in-state public college tuition.
“Good, quality child care costs a lot of money,” says long-time Kansas City children’s advocate Jim Caccamo.
Caccamo spent 11 years as the director of the Early Learning Department at the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), leading initiatives to improve quality at local early learning centers. He knows well how expensive these centers are to run -- there’s rent for the facility, upkeep, food, materials, not to mention salaries.
Elise Gould, author of the EPI report, says that’s a massive part of it.
“If it’s not the price that’s driving up cost, it’s the quantity,” Gould explains. “You want to have … enough teachers throughout the day. A child care center might run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. That means you have to have many people that cover those shifts throughout the day.”
Quality care necessitates a high adult-to-child ratio. Divided among a large number of workers, the high cost parents pay appears much smaller. But number of workers isn’t the only thing driving up the cost of quality.
"There was a period in our history where we thought small kids just needed to be looked after, cared for, and kept from harm," says economist Betsey Stevenson, who formerly served on the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
"We now know that this is a time of rapid intellectual development for kids. Having people skilled and educated in that type of early childhood development is important."
Stevenson is careful to explain that the relevant question is not whether the minimum wage should be $15 an hour, but rather, should the workers that provide this care be minimum wage workers?
Caccamo says, simply, no.
“If you look at Missouri laws, you can provide childcare if you’re 18, tuberculosis-free and have a high school diploma,” he says. "That’s not enough. You need more skill."
A large body of research also indicates the first few years are a critical time for brain development.
More education for workers would mean higher pay, and with higher pay, comes higher costs — which is hard to imagine for parents who are already paying a lot. According to a study out of Child Care Aware, the average annual cost of center-based care is nearly half of the income of a family of three living at the poverty level, which is around $19,790.
There are programs in place, like Head Start and Child Care Aware, designed to help low-income families pay for child care. But even those programs have limitations. With an annual budget of $23 million, the local Kansas City extension of Head Start only serves about 20 percent of the eligible children. And there’s still a vast middle-class that can’t foot the bill.
So, how can we make high quality child care available to families across the income spectrum?
Many say it will take a great deal public investment. Caccamo suggests expanding universal pre-kindergarten to include younger children, and increasing our tax dollars to fund it.
As of now, the Obama administration is working to increase both the amount of subsidies available for child care, and the number of families who qualify.
"The only way we can make the kind of investments in children that are necessary for society, is for government to play a bigger role," Stevenson says.
"When we spend more on child development when they’re very little, we have to spend less to help them catch up when they enter formal schooling," Stevenson explains. "And earnings gains for children alone are bigger than the cost of such programs. High quality programs that have been evaluated show yield returns of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent on child care."
But for now, affording quality child care is still a very real issue for very real families.
Take 25-year old Lajua Manning, for example. She is a minimum wage worker — a certified nursing assistant — a part-time student, and a full-time single mom in Kansas City.
"I don’t really have a support system," Manning says. "I don’t have nobody to watch her, besides my grandma and grandpa, but they took care of me when I was a kid, so I don’t want to repay them that way."
So, Manning started working the overnight shift at her job and picked up extra work. She now spends her days providing care for children at home, so she can be there for her daughter. It’s a little extra cash in her pocket and a lot more work.
Kimmy DeVries knows the work she does is pivotal, but wonders often about how it is valued.
"If ... children are as precious and as valuable as we say, then why are we not valuing the people who teach and care for them every day?" DeVries asks.
Andrea Tudhope is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter @adtudhope.