A Goal to Thrive

Child Care Services Association (CCSA) is proud to offer two education-based salary supplement programs in North Carolina. The Child Care WAGE$® Program issued its first checks in 1994 in one county and as of 2023, is available in 63 counties across the state with funding from local Smart Start partnerships that choose to participate and the Division of Child Development and Early Education. Funding partnerships determine compensation amounts and some of the program’s eligibility requirements, and supplements are issued to qualifying educators working with children birth to 5. Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$® started in 2018 and expanded eligibility in July 2023, rebranding as Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$® Plus. Funded solely by the Division of Child Development and Early Education, the supplements are available in all 100 counties to qualifying educators working with children birth through age 2 at least 30 hours per week. 

The supplements are issued after six-month commitment periods worked in the same facility and the amounts increase with gains in education. The programs are an important part of North Carolina’s efforts to increase compensation for early educators, and they also prioritize the consistency and education of recipients to help build quality for children. In FY22, the average six-month supplement for both programs exceeded $1,200. These additional funds help ease the financial stress for participants and make a difference in their daily lives. One participant said, “WAGE$ has helped me keep a roof over my head, food on my table and clothes on my back. . . It’s a start to a better life for me.” Another recipient stated, “Infant-Toddler Educator AWARD$® [Plus] has given me reason to stay at my current program when their rate of pay was not meeting my needs. It’s given me more financial security, decreased stress from financial strain and helped me to be a more present teacher for my children in the classroom.”

These programs are a financial asset to recipients and they are important strategies to help increase compensation for the workforce. However, many strategies are needed to truly advance compensation, particularly without public funding. The goal should be to help early educators thrive, not just survive. Early educators who increase their coursework with the assistance of a T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® scholarship—another opportunity offered through CCSA—may receive either a raise or a bonus tied to the successful completion of a scholarship contract. When combined with a WAGE$ or AWARD$ Plus salary supplement, the support becomes even more beneficial. In addition, taking more coursework could move a participant to a higher level on the supplement scale, resulting in a higher payment. 

With funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, North Carolina has used stabilization grants as another strategy to help address low compensation. Many child care programs in the state have used stabilization grants to temporarily increase employees’ wages or to provide a bonus. Supplements added to a better base wage increase the impact and illustrate the effectiveness of the multi-strategy approach. Public school teachers on average earn considerably more than early educators, and many also receive county-based supplements to enhance their compensation package.

Program participants’ employer-paid wages have improved. Based on mid-year data, 55% of active WAGE$ participants earn $15 per hour or more, compared to 26% last year. AWARD$ Plus participants show a similar improvement, with 56% earning at least $15 per hour compared to 40%. These gains may be temporary since stabilization grant dollars likely funded many raises. Of course, the goal is to sustain higher wages wherever possible and continue to support strategies that make the compensation more competitive with other professions. 

While having more participants earning more than $15 per hour is an achievement, it is not time to celebrate. According to the Living Wage Calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the hourly rate needed for one North Carolinian to meet basic, fundamental needs is $16.83 per hour; if that adult has one child, the rate needed increases to $35.73 per hour. This is a living, not a thriving wage. 

Early educators build the brains of our children while being in one of the lowest-paid professions. They deserve to thrive instead. Many strategies are needed to help make this possible. As the state and the nation continue to tackle this issue, CCSA, with funder support, is pleased to offer WAGE$ and AWARD$ Plus supplements to help enhance compensation for the early childhood workforce. 

For additional information on these programs, contact allisonm@childcareservices.org.