As Sen. Elizabeth Warren used her Democratic National Convention remarks to argue that child care is a critical part of the country’s infrastructure and endorse plans to “raise the wages of every child care worker,” some eagle-eyed viewers noticed a subtle statement in the background: letters carefully arranged in student cubbies spelling out “BLM,” the acronym for Black Lives Matter. Given Warren’s focus on the child care workforce, it was a relevant message—Black women, along with other women of color, comprise a significant portion of early childhood care and education workers, and the child care woes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored how much their lives, livelihoods, and rights as workers matter.

In the United States, women of color are 40% of the overwhelmingly female child care industry workforce, which is also 22% immigrant women. These administrators, teachers, and aides spend their days performing some of the most vital functions in the U.S. economy, providing for both the educational and physical needs of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers during the most significant developmental periods of their lives. And they’re doing this indispensable work for poverty wages, with low pay flowing from both racial disparities in the industry and the larger devaluation of care work in American culture.

“Together, African American and Hispanic early educators are overrepresented in roles that place their wages not only at the bottom of the early childhood workforce, but at the bottom of the entire U.S. labor market,” explain the authors of a white paper on racial wage gaps in early education, published by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE). Nationally, women child care workers are paid on average $9.62 per hour, which comes to just $20,000 annually for full time work. In many cases, Black and brown child care workers contend with even lower pay, with Black workers earning an average of 78 cents less per hour than white early educators even when they have the same educational attainment.  

“There’s no single racial wage gap that exists, there’s multiple wage gaps,” said CSCCE  Executive Director Lea J.E. Austin in a video explaining the research. “For African American teachers for example, we see that they are more likely to work with infant and toddler children, and infant and toddler teachers earn less than teachers who are working with preschool age children. We also see that African American early educators experience a smaller pay bump for moving from working with younger children to older children. But with Hispanic teachers, where we see the gaps at play are really in access to jobs. So Hispanic teachers are more likely than their peers to work as assistant teachers than lead teachers, and of course, assistant teachers are going to earn less than head or lead teachers.”

Due to the widespread low wages, more than one in six women child care workers live below the poverty line and over half receive rely on some form of public assistance including the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid. For Black and brown child care workers, and those who are mothers themselves working to support their families, poverty rates are even higher.

That means the women and their families struggle to pay rent and must sometimes go without basic necessities like food and medication. With such low wages, child care workers also struggle to afford child care for their own children, which is expensive across the country and particularly unaffordable for Black and brown families.

Undervaluing care work

“The work of teaching and caring for young children is really hard and complex work. Unfortunately, though, as a society we generally don’t see it that way or treat it that way,” said Austin.

The devaluation of women of color’s care work has a long history in this country, stretching back to the days when enslaved Black women were forced to care for white children for no wages at all. Indeed, Dr. Keesha M. Middlemass argued in an op-ed for TheGrio that “structural racism has kept the public funding of child care linked to the archetype of Mammy—skilled, submissive, obedient, and UNPAID women of color.” In the present day, that means low wages and often minimal benefits for Black and brown women working in child care, and a government that has until recently seemed indifferent to their calls for reform and recognition of their work’s significance.

“I’m doing the most incredible work, I’m a brain architect for children,” said LaWanda Wesley, director of Quality Enhancement & Professional Development of Early Learning in Oakland in an interview with the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF). “I’m in the field of developing a human life and human being, but I’m only worthy of a certain salary and that salary is not representative of the value of the work that I do—it’s not comparable.”

COVID-19 brings job loss and new hazards

For child care workers already struggling with low wages, the COVID-19 pandemic has added job loss and instability, and health risks to an already precarious situation. Since the pandemic began in March, more than 325,000 child care workers have lost their jobs as roughly half of all child care programs have closed during the last five months. And it’s not just teachers who are affected. In the early childhood care and education industry, women of color are often also business owners, owning and operating child care centers or providing home-based care. For many of these Black and brown small business owners, who also provide jobs for educators from their own communities, what began as temporary closures may shutter their child care centers altogether: About half of child care business owners of color responded to a July survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children saying they “are certain they will close permanently without additional public assistance.”

“I don’t see how you can keep your costs low, pay your staff high, provide the best possible learning opportunities, consider every need, whether it be staff training and parent support, and social activities—how can you do all that, make certain all your bills are paid on time, and withstand this type of experience?” said Donna Mason, executive director of St. Albans Early Childhood Center in Washington, D.C., in an interview with LIIF. “It’s not possible. The money’s going to run out.”

Even those centers that have remained open are seeing decreased enrollment—which means decreased tuition revenue—as working parents cope with their own job losses, or simply remain wary about sending their children back with COVID-19 cases on the rise. And of course, keeping centers open means that child care workers are exposed to some degree of risk.

While the debate rages over reopening schools K-12 safely and teachers express their anxieties about returning to classrooms, many Black and brown women in child care roles have been facing these risks all along. While many child care centers have adopted mask policies in according with state regulations, and are incurring additional costs for PPE and more frequent cleaning and disinfecting, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are still notoriously inept at social distancing. Thus, even with precautions, the fact remains that women of color child care workers are being asked to expose themselves to children from multiple families day in and day out, with no way of knowing how well those families are isolating or adhering to social distancing practices in their own lives. In most cases, the added risk has not come with any increase in wages.

As Myra Jones-Taylor, Ph.D., the chief policy officer at Zero to Three, a group that advocates for issues about babies and toddlers recently told The New York Times, “[t]he fact that a low-wage sector so heavily made up of women of color is being asked by society to assume more risk by remaining open speaks to ‘the disposable nature of this work—the less-than approach to and appreciation of this work.’”

Advocating for reform

Despite the longstanding calls for increased public funding and support for child care workers, action from the government has been slow in coming. At the end of July, the House of Representatives passed two bills—the Child care is Essential Act and the Child Care for Economic Recovery Act—to bail out the child care industry with $60 billion, some of which would go toward emergency funding to providers to help them stay afloat. While the Child Care is Essential Act doesn’t expressly advocate using funds to raise wages, the one-pager for the bill notes that providers may use grants to cover personnel costs, including “premium pay, employee benefits, and employee salaries.”

In the meantime, child care workers are undeterred and continuing the fight for increased wages and benefits. The Child Care Fight for $15 movement is part of the larger campaign to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, and includes parents and child care workers advocating side-by-side for fair wages. In addition, the ECE Organizing Network is coordinating the Grassroots Movement for Child Care and Early Education. Bringing “a shared economic, racial, and gender justice lens” to their work, the movement of child care workers, educators, and parents states in a blog post that they are working toward a world where “early educators are paid, at a minimum, a living wage with benefits, are able to work with dignity, are empowered to use their voice on the job, and able to join a professional organization like a union; are well-trained and fairly compensated; reflect the diversity of families served, and early educators who have degrees, credentials, or demonstrated competency levels equivalent with K-12 teachers are compensated at the same level[.]”

Recently, the movement has seen some wins, with New Mexico establishing hazard pay for child care workers as the pandemic rages.

If organizers have anything to say about it, that’s just the beginning of what might be a sea change in how Americans view, appreciate, and compensate child care workers in the wake of COVID-19 fundamentally reshaping our society. For elected officials who intend to follow through on Warren’s exhortation to recognize child care as “infrastructure for families,” that means more states and the federal government must ensure that the Black and brown women who perform such vital work are centered in the push for justice.


Ashton Lattimore

Ashton is an accomplished writer and editor—and recovering lawyer—whose work focuses on the intersection of race, culture, and law. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post, Slate magazine,...