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The Early Childhood Workforce and the Economy

By Marsha Basloe, President, Child Care Services Association

Working Parents Need Access to Quality Child Care – More Support Needed for Child Care Workforce

Currently, throughout North Carolina, nearly half a million (457,706) children under age six live in a family where all parents in the household are working.[1] Many of these children are in some type of child care setting every week so that their parents can obtain and retain jobs that sustain and grow our state’s economy. 

A study by the Committee for Economic Development (CED) shows that child care as an industry has an economic impact in North Carolina of $3.15 billion annually ($1.47 billion in direct revenue and $1.67 billion in spillover in other industries throughout our counties and cities).[2] Child care programs have an overall job impact throughout the state of 64,852, which includes 47,282 individuals who are employed within child care centers or who operate a home-based business plus another 17,570 in spillover jobs – created through the activity of those operating child care programs.[3] The economic impact of child care matters because it helps drive local economies. When parents can access child care, they are more likely to enter the workforce and stay employed. 

The Child Care Workforce: Early Brain Builders

Source: Committee for Economic Development, 2019

What we know is that child care is not only a work support for parents but also an early learning setting for young children. Research shows that a child’s earliest years are when the brain is developing the fastest – forming a foundation for all future social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. During this time, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second.[4] This is important to understand because both parents and child care providers play an important role in supporting healthy child development – helping to shape the brain’s foundation for all future learning (e.g., school readiness and school success).

Because both genes and experiences impact a child’s brain development,[5] the child care workforce plays a critical role in supporting early learning. In essence, they are brain builders – working with children to support a strong foundation on which later learning depends – just like the foundation for a house, all floors above the basement depend on the construction or sturdiness of the basement.

The Workforce that Supports All Other Workforces

Despite the important role that child care educators play in supporting our next generation (as well as supporting the ability of parents to work), the current economic model for child care programs falls short of supporting child care workers in a way that recognizes their role in child development. How so? The operating budget for child care programs is based on parent fees and state subsidies paid for low-income children.

Because the current cost of child care in North Carolina is so high (e.g., $9,254 annually for center-based infant care),[6] program directors try to keep costs down because they know parents can’t pay more. However, what this translates to is low wages for the child care field. In today’s economy, where the fast-food industry and retail sales pay higher hourly wages and often offer benefits, the competition for the workforce to enter the early childhood field is steep. In fact, the early childhood field is experiencing a workforce crisis.

In North Carolina, the median wage earned for child care teachers is about $10.97 per hour ($22,818 per year if full time) and assistant teachers earn $9.97 per hour.[7] These wages represent a modest 0.7% increase in buying power despite much larger gains in education. The study also found that statewide, 39% of teachers and teacher assistants had needed at least one type of public assistance (e.g., TANF, Medicaid, SNAP/food stamps, etc.) in the past three years.

Child Care Services Association (CCSA) is conducting a county-level early childhood workforce study for the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) that will be completed in August 2020. Once completed, North Carolina will have additional information.

Source: Committee for Economic Development, 2019

For context, many child care educators are supporting their own families. With these wages, they fall well short of the level that qualifies them for public food assistance benefits (e.g., a family of three with income under $27,000 per year qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP).[8] It’s not hard to understand that workers in low wage jobs face stresses in making ends meet, in supporting their own families and in parking their stress outside the classroom door when working with young children. 

In North Carolina, the state funds two programs administered by CCSA to support the early childhood workforce:

  • Child Care WAGE$® Program, which provides education-based salary supplements to low paid teachers, directors and family child care educators working with children ages birth to five. The program is designed to increase retention, education and compensation. The Child Care WAGE$® Program is a funding collaboration between local Smart Start partnerships (55 partnerships) and the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE).[9] Salary supplements are earned – tied to the recipient’s level of education, with teachers and family child care providers awarded on a different scale than directors.

These strategies are invaluable to better support the child care workforce for the important work that they do.  It raises salaries sometimes almost a dollar an hour. You can see the impact of these programs on our website. This is an investment in the workforce that supports all other workforces, AND also an investment that results in better outcomes for our children (e.g., brain-building that leads to school readiness). We hope these programs will grow in the years ahead to support our early childhood educators who care for our young children and families.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the work of our early educators. It is time for our communities to think about compensation for the early childhood workforce in a manner that reflects their contribution to our state’s prosperity.


[1] U.S. Census Bureau, Table B23008, Age of Own Children Under 18 Years in Families and Subfamilies by Living Arrangements by Employment Status of Parents, 2018 American Community Survey, 1 Year Estimates. https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=b23008&hidePreview=true&table=B23008&tid=ACSDT1Y2018.B23008&lastDisplayedRow=15&g=0400000US37

[2] Child Care in State Economies: 2019 Update, Committee for Economic Development, 2019. https://www.ced.org/childcareimpact

[3] Ibid.

[4] Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, Brain Architecture. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/

[5] Ibid.

[6] The U.S. and the High Price of Child Care: An Examination of a Broken System, Child Care Aware of America, 2019. https://usa.childcareaware.org/advocacy-public-policy/resources/priceofcare/

[7] Child Care Services Association, Working in Early Care and Education in North Carolina, 2015,  https://www.childcareservices.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2015-Workforce-Report-FNL.pdf        

[8] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, eligibility 2019. https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility

[9] WAGE$ North Carolina, Child Care Services Association.  https://www.childcareservices.org/wages-nc/

[10] AWARD$ North Carolina, Child Care Services Association. https://www.childcareservices.org/awards/

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