One issue central to ensuring the quality of early childhood education is something that does not garner as much attention as available pre-K slots or the rate at which providers are reimbursed for care: how much early childhood educators are paid.
In North Carolina, as in the rest of the country, early childhood educators face significant barriers to make ends meet. Nationwide, they earn just 39 cents for every dollar earned by workers in other occupations. This is compounded by the higher likelihood that early childhood educators do not have access to health care benefits or retirement plans. They are also more likely to live in poverty compared to similarly situated workers in other occupations. And North Carolina’s early childhood workers have seen their median wage decline in the recovery according to analysis presented in Education Week.
These maps from the Economic Policy Institute show that in nearly all North Carolina counties more than half of early childhood educators in either preschool or child care settings cannot afford the local cost of living on their hourly wage. In Buncombe and Henderson County, more than 65 percent of early educators in child care settings cannot afford local costs on their earnings. In Brunswick County, more than 80 percent of early educators cannot afford local costs on their earnings. The failure of wages to keep up with costs of basic goods and services means that many workers will go without those basics or forced to close the gap by seeing support from family, charity, and public programs.
Early childhood programs also remain woefully out of reach for early childhood educators to send their own children based on analysis of median earnings. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ official affordability threshold for child care costs is 10 percent or less of a family’s income. In North Carolina, infant care represents 47 percent of a child care worker’s wages and 38 percent of a preschool worker’s wages.
Early childhood educators’ wages are an important marker of how well North Carolina is doing in delivering high quality childcare and providing for the well-being of young children. Proposals that boost the wages of qualified early educators are critical as is making sure that the state’s early childhood educators, like all of our workers, can make ends meet through work.