VOICES: The care economy is in crisis, and it can be addressed by investing in our kids

I want to level with you. Ohio’s care economy is in trouble. I offer this assessment as a mother of six, and as the founder and operator of the New Direction Learning Center. After owning and operating an early learning center for 26 years, I know the importance of investing in young children. I have seen what happens to families and communities when young children are stimulated academically. But I also see what happens when families fall through the cracks because they either cannot afford early childhood education, or because their local centers are unable to retain staff. Our elected leaders must do more to invest in early education.

Unfortunately, the early childhood education industry’s workers are among the lowest-paid in the nation, and Ohio is no exception. This means that the people who are caring for the most vulnerable Ohioans are not earning a salary that would afford them to work without financial worry, and not receiving the respect they deserve. While many have a passion for educating young children, far too many workers leave the industry in favor of higher paying retail jobs.

The root cause for the crisis is a historic under-investment in education and a stubborn devaluation of caregivers and care work. Early childhood educators, who are 95% women, typically earn $11 per hour. While this is higher than Ohio’s hourly minimum wage of $9.30 per hour (and the federal minimum wage of $7.25), it is far lower than what is necessary to raise a family.

Importantly, the early childhood education crisis falls largely along race, gender and class lines. The people most likely to work in the care economy are Black and brown women, immigrants, and persons with low incomes. These are the same people who need access to early childhood education due to systematic barriers.

While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing tensions, the crisis involving access to high-quality, affordable childcare has been brewing for years. Unfortunately, when elected leaders don’t fund childcare workers, Ohio’s economy also suffers. Childcare operators are unable to hire, retain, and promote care workers. This creates vacancies and reduces capacity to serve children and families. Over the long-term, the lack of early childhood educators results in child care deserts.

This isn’t just an urban issue. And it doesn’t just affect people with children. A statewide poll commissioned by Groundwork Ohio and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies found 47% of parents with children under five have had serious problems with finding affordable childcare and meeting family responsibilities. This same study found that 60% of moms (non-working or part-time with children under five) would return to work or work more hours if they had access to quality, affordable childcare.

Elected leaders must see the benefits in caring for those who care for our kids. They must see the benefits of investing in those who invest in us. They must value the largely Black, brown, and immigrant women who ensure our kids get the early childcare and support they need.

Terri Sims is a mother of six. She founded and runs New Direction Learning Center Inc., dba Playtime Nursery School in Dayton, Ohio. Her early learning center is a five-star center.

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