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The Economics Of Early Childhood: ‘You’re There For The Kids...Not For The Money’
The pandemic highlighted the essential work of California’s child care providers, but the reality is that the state’s supply of available child care, and the number of providers, have been shrinking for years. One reason? Low wages.
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About Child Care, Unfiltered

The pandemic highlighted the essential work of California’s child care providers, but the reality is that the state’s supply of available child care and the number of providers have been shrinking for years.

Statewide, licensed child care is available to a quarter of families; in Los Angeles County, it’s 22% of families, according to nonprofit Children Now.

In this image, a teacher hugs a student while another student stands nearby.
This little girl "needed extra love," Lancaster family child care provider Yvonne Cottage says. "I could tell by the grip."
(Yvonne Cottage for LAist)
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Experts have long pointed to the low wages as one reason the state’s early care and education workforce is shrinking, even as parents struggle to find care for their kids.

While individual child care arrangements vary, the median wage for California’s child care workers is $13.43 an hour.

“If you’re in the profession, you’re there for the kids, for the passion that you love to teach, not for the money,” says Ruth Flores, an Early Head Start teacher who works with 2- and 3-year-olds in Mid-City.

In this image, a teacher sits in front of four bins with files inside of them.
Yvonne created an outdoor classroom during the pandemic. She sorts through each child's homework weekly to make sure they're on track.
(Yvonne Cottage for LAist)

A professional-grade jungle gym occupies the majority of Yvonne Cottage’s Lancaster backyard. She spends $500-$600 a week on groceries and takes the kids in her family child care program on an annual camping trip, at no cost to the working-class parents she serves.

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“We’re here to provide whatever it is that that child needs, regardless of whether we get compensated,” Yvonne says.

Her center’s revenue comes from parents who can pay out of pocket, and the state, which pays for child care for some low-income families through a medley of subsidy programs.

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California politicians set those rates and haven’t increased them since 2016. For example, an L.A. County family child care provider is paid a maximum of $5.42 an hour for each preschooler who needs full-time monthly care — and that’s only counting 40 hours a week. Many providers LAist has spoken with say they often provide additional hours of care for families.

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“It’s not that there aren’t people out there saying we need to raise wages for educators, and educators themselves saying this,” says Caitlin McLean, a senior research specialist at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. “It’s that there’s been a lack of political will to invest the money.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom did not increase rates for child care providers who serve families in subsidy programs in the May budget revision, but there's a proposal in the legislature to do so.

In this image, boxes are shown stacked up against a wall.
In the midst of the pandemic, South Central L.A. family child care provider Jackie Jackson told parents if they couldn't get diapers, she'd provide them.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

Multiple child care providers who documented their lives in photos for this project pay themselves a minimal salary, spending most of their income on essentials like rent, utilities, and food.

“I’d love to say that I’m able to save money for retirement, but I can’t,” Yvonne says. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried.”

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She’s also put off purchasing a hearing aid, despite finding out a few years ago that she’s partially deaf.

“‘This isn’t a charity,’” Yvonne’s husband, Mike, who she calls the CEO, tells her.

“I get that,” she says. “But at the end of the day, if we’re not giving the most that we can, then you know, what are we doing?”

In this image, a teacher works while sitting at a table in the classroom.
"While the children are taking their nap... I'm trying to do my best at keeping up with my paperwork," Jackie says.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

Child care providers have long operated on thin margins.

The pandemic made it cost more to operate child care. Prices for cleaning supplies skyrocketed ($20 cans of Lysol, anyone?) and enrollment was down. Many parents were too worried to bring in their kids, and public safety guidelines limited the number of students who could attend.

A group of child care nonprofits surveyed Los Angeles providers last fall, and half reported their revenue wasn’t enough to cover monthly costs, citing low enrollment and the cost of cleaning supplies, among other factors.

CHILDCARE UNFILTERED -THEME 2 - Sofi
2020, the year cleaning supplies became luxury items.
(Sofi Villalpado for LAist)

Some were unable to weather the crisis: In Los Angeles County, the number of licensed child care centers dropped 36% since the start of the pandemic; the number of available family child care homes dropped by 10%.

The providers who took photos for LAist had to string together funding from a hodgepodge of sources to stay afloat.

Several said California’s decision to continue paying providers a fee for families enrolled in subsidy programs, even when these kids didn’t show up, or the programs had to close temporarily, created a critical source of income.

Other providers successfully applied for federal COVID-19 relief programs — but this is a rarity. The Bipartisan Policy Center analyzed Paycheck Protection Program recipients and found that fewer than 7% of more than 670,000 child care businesses nationally received a loan.

All in all, these programs are life preservers, a temporary reprieve. They don’t fix the catastrophic leaks flooding an early childhood system that faced challenges before the pandemic.

In this image, five children with panda face shields play on a jungle gym outside.
La Habra Montessori Preschool remained open and fully staffed last year, even when enrollment dwindled. "If it was [for the] money, we would have closed," Manoja says. "We would have been in a better off position, but we did it because we love what we do."
(Manoja Weerakoon for LAist)

High-quality care costs more than any one source provides right now — whether that’s parents, philanthropy, or the government.

And yes, that includes the average of $956 a month in California that families pay for preschool (the rates are even higher for younger children) while many providers make poverty-level wages.

The state’s preschool teachers make a median wage of $16.83 an hour, compared to an elementary school teacher’s $48.09 an hour.

“Educators themselves are subsidizing the system, essentially, with their low wages,” says UC Berkeley’s McLean.

In this image, an adult sits and works on a computer.
"It is a business, but when you start thinking as a business, it's harder to work with kids," Jeanne says.
(Jeanne Yu for LAist)

A Center for the Study of Child Care Employment report found that almost half of California child care workers’ families participate in public assistance programs like Medi-Cal and food stamps.

Even across overall low wages, there are disparities. On average, Black early educators make 78 cents less per hour than their white peers, according to the Center.

In this image, a teacher helps a child with something on their tablet.
Jackie's family child care center serves parents who can pay out of pocket and those who qualify for subsidized or free care through state and federal programs.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

“These poor working conditions for educators are not inevitable,” McLean says. “They are a product of all the choices that we have made in this country and in the state that we don’t have to continue to make going forward.”

Advocates are eyeing billions in federal coronavirus relief funding dedicated to child care, and a union of select providers formed last year is in the midst of negotiating its first labor contract with the state.

This is an image of a classroom with several tables and chairs for children.
Manoja went to a sale at a closing Whittier preschool in December. "If that happened to them, it could happen to us too," she says.
(Manoja Weerakoon for LAist)

The help can’t come soon enough for providers who put the needs of the communities they care for above their own.

La Habra preschool director Manoja Weerakoon hasn’t increased tuition since 2014. She says the families can’t afford it.

“Right now I’m lost,” Manoja says. “I'm just taking one day at a time. Let’s see how it goes. Let’s see how it goes. And so we’ll keep our doors open.”

In this image, the sunset outside of the classroom is shown.
The end of another day at La Habra Montessori Preschool.
(Manoja Weerakoon for LAist)