Report

Still Underpaid and Unequal

Early Childhood Educators Face Low Pay and a Worsening Wage Gap

New, comprehensive data on child care workers in center-based programs—analyzing their demographics, education, experience, and wages—reveal widening pay gaps and inequality.

In this article
A teacher surrounded by her students leads preschoolers in dance during a class at an early childhood center in Boulder, Colorado.
A teacher leads preschoolers in dance during a class at an early childhood center in Boulder, Colorado, March 2016. (Getty/Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Key takeaways
  • 76 percent of early childhood teachers have some kind of professional credential—either a postsecondary degree or a certification in early childhood education.
  • Early childhood educators are 97 percent women and are more racially diverse than the general population; 38 percent are women of color.
  • Full-time teachers are paid $14 per hour on average, and real wages have actually dropped by 6.5 percent during the seven years since the first survey was conducted.
  • The wage gap between white and Black early childhood educators has widened since 2012, from 84 percent to 76 percent.

Formal child care and early education environments are a significant part of many young children’s development. Around two-thirds of children younger than age 6 in the United States have all available parents in the labor force,1 making care arrangements a prominent aspect of families’ daily lives. While not all families use licensed child care, a prior Center for American Progress analysis of census data found that more than 7.3 million children were in a licensed child care arrangement.2

Read more on the history of wage disparities among early childhood educators
Underpaid and Unequal
An assistant teacher reads to students at a pre-K school in Seattle, February 12, 2016. (AP/Elaine Thompson)
Report

Underpaid and Unequal

Rebecca Ullrich, Katie Hamm, Rachel Herzfeldt-Kamprath


The people who work with children in these environments are the main factor in the quality of early care and education.3 But, despite the integral role that early childhood educators play, they are compensated with low to poverty wages for their work. Child care workers remain nearly at the bottom of all U.S. occupations when ranked by annual pay, and they struggle to make ends meet—frequently relying upon public income support programs.4

This issue brief contains a new CAP analysis of recently released 2019 early childhood workforce data, including demographics, credentials and qualifications, and compensation.

About the NSECE center-based workforce survey

The National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) provides nationally representative data on the early childhood sector, including the center-based care workforce.5 The 2019 data, released in late 2021, provide an opportunity to understand who comprises the early childhood workforce, their credentials, and their compensation.6 The previous version of the NSECE was conducted in 2012 and released in 2014. The 2019 NSECE workforce survey includes 5,192 respondents, representing 1,353,388 total child care workers employed at center-based programs across the country. There were no workforce data available for 1.26 percent of child care workers, as educators at 483 school-based sites did not complete a survey questionnaire and therefore only have administrative data included.

The child care workforce survey includes teachers, lead teachers, or instructors (61.3 percent, referred to in this brief as teachers), and aides or assistant teachers (37.1 percent). A small proportion (0.4 percent) had a role classified as other or unknown and were dropped from the analysis.

Nearly three-fourths of the workforce works full time, or 35 hours or more per week, while 24 percent work part time, or less than 35 hours per week. Around half—46.1 percent—taught only preschool-age children, while 29 percent taught only infants and toddlers; 23.6 percent taught children in both age groups. Slightly more than one-quarter of early childhood educators had searched for a new or additional job within the three months before the survey, with half of those searching indicating that they were looking for a job that pays more. An additional 13.1 percent were looking for a second job, and 7.5 percent were looking for improved work conditions. Only about 5 percent of those who had recently searched for a job were looking for career advancement within the field of child care, signaling that many are looking to leave early childhood education entirely.

Child care workers remain nearly at the bottom of all U.S. occupations when ranked by annual pay.

Demographics

The early childhood education workforce is 96.7 percent female. The majority of this overwhelmingly female workforce is non-Hispanic white women (57.8 percent), followed by non-Hispanic Black women (16.7 percent) and Hispanic7 women (16.4 percent); American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial respondents were grouped into one category and together represent 3.1 percent of the workforce, and Asian individuals were 2.7 percent of the workforce. Women and women of color are overrepresented within early childhood education. For comparison, among the overall U.S. workforce in 2019, non-Hispanic white women made up 29.6 percent, while non-Hispanic Black women represented only 6.1 percent and Hispanic women another 7.4 percent.8 Within the early childhood education workforce, non-Hispanic white men constituted 1.3 percent, and men of color represented less than 1 percent: 0.5 percent Black men, 0.3 percent Hispanic men, 0.02 percent Asian men, and 0.03 percent American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial men.

By region, the highest concentration of white women is in the Midwest, where they constitute 70.5 percent of the early childhood workforce. The South and West have lower proportions of white women, with 50.1 percent and 51.4 percent, respectively. Black women are most represented in the South, at 25.8 percent of the early childhood workforce. Hispanic and Asian women are most represented in the West, making up 27.4 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, of the workforce in that region. Male educators are a very small proportion of the overall early childhood workforce, but they are least represented in the South, where all men constitute less than 1 percent of the workforce—the vast majority of whom are Black men. Men are most represented in the West, at 3.3 percent, with two-thirds of the male educators being white.

Women and women of color are overrepresented within early childhood education.

Across all regions, non-Hispanic Black individuals were more represented in teacher roles (19.1 percent) than aide roles (14.5 percent), while Hispanic individuals were more represented in aide roles (19.8 percent) than teacher roles (15.4 percent). Educators in preschool-age classes were slightly more likely to be white (63 percent) than in infant/toddler classes (59.5 percent).

Figure 1

Qualifications

Nearly 80 percent of the workforce has attended at least some college, and about half have obtained an associate degree or higher. Early childhood educators who indicated they are Asian are the most highly educated, with 41 percent holding a bachelor’s degree and an additional 18 percent holding a graduate or professional degree. In comparison, 29 percent of non-Hispanic white educators hold a four-year degree or higher. Only 1.7 percent of the workforce has completed less than a high school diploma. Figure 2 shows the distribution of educational attainment by race and ethnicity.

Early childhood educators overwhelmingly have specialized knowledge that enables them to perform skilled work in the classroom.

In addition to typical degree credentials, about half of all early childhood educators have attained an early childhood education-specific credential, such as a state license or child development associate certificate. More than two-thirds have either a postsecondary degree or an early childhood education credential. The proportion rises to 76 percent among teachers and instructors. Those who work with preschool-age children—3- to 5-year-olds—are more likely to have a degree or credential (73.9 percent) than those who work with infants and toddlers (63.6 percent). Early childhood educators overwhelmingly have specialized knowledge that enables them to perform skilled work in the classroom.

Figure 2

There is a wide range of years of experience among early childhood educators. Nearly one-third (32.1 percent) of them have been caring for children for five years or less. Aides are substantially less experienced than teachers, with 43.2 percent indicating they have five years’ experience or less, compared with 26.1 percent of teachers. About 38 percent of educators have between five and 15 years of experience, with a similar proportion regardless of classroom role. Almost 30 percent have cared for children for 15 years or more—although this proportion is much lower for aides (19.7 percent) than for teachers (34.51 percent). Educators in infant/toddler classes are much less experienced than those in preschool-age classes: 37.7 percent have less than five years of experience, compared with 27.1 percent of preschool teachers.

Compensation

Overall, early childhood educators are compensated poorly for their essential work. Differences in pay derive from a variety of factors: role within a program; regional location; ages of children taught; years of experience; education; community poverty level; urbanicity, or the density of the urban/rural population where the center-based provider is located; and race or ethnicity. These differences are consistent with what was shown in the 2012 NSECE.9

Figure 3

Full-time teachers in center-based child care are paid, on average, $14.01 per hour—less than half of the $32.80 that kindergarten teachers earn.10 Wages are higher, at $17.07 per hour, for teachers in preschool-age classrooms than for teachers in infant/toddler classrooms, at $10.86 per hour. Among those who have obtained at least a four-year degree, wages are still far behind their kindergarten counterparts. A full-time early childhood teacher who holds at least a bachelor’s degree earns just 57 percent of what they could make as a kindergarten teacher, at $18.77 per hour versus $32.80 per hour.

The NSECE does not provide state-level data but does provide regional data based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s four statistical regions. Full-time teachers earn the most in the Western region, at $15.42 per hour, and the least in the South—a disproportionately Black region—at $12.94 per hour. The Northeast and Midwest are in the middle, at $14.46 and $14.55 per hour, respectively.

Adjusting wages for inflation reveals an even bleaker reality. In 2012, full-time teachers in center-based child care earned about $13.39 per hour—the equivalent of $14.99 in 2019 dollars. This means that early childhood educators’ real wages have actually dropped from $14.99 per hour to $14.01 per hour, or 6.5 percent, over the seven-year period.

Teachers making the average hourly wage of $14.01, working 40-hour weeks for the full year, would earn less than $30,000 annually, barely above the federal poverty line for a family of four.

Teachers making the average hourly wage of $14.01, working 40-hour weeks for the full year, would earn less than $30,000 annually, barely above the federal poverty line for a family of four. Extremely low compensation for the early childhood workforce results in educators relying upon government assistance programs. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that 53 percent of child care workers or their family members were enrolled in at least one public support program, compared with 21 percent of the U.S. workforce as a whole.11 The NSECE asked a narrower version of this question and found that in 2019, 14.5 percent of early childhood educators were receiving some form of financial or in-kind support from a program for needy families, defined as “cash assistance for disabilities, housing assistance, free-reduced lunch for your children or food stamps.” This lower proportion likely reflects the specific question, as it would not include the federal earned income tax credit (EITC), Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Additionally, underreporting of receipt of public assistance programs in survey responses is well documented and widespread,12 meaning the NSECE self-reported data likely substantially undercount receipt of public support.

Only about one-third of full-time early childhood teachers have health insurance through their workplace, far lower than the 52 percent of workers across all sectors who participated in employer-sponsored health insurance programs in 2019.13 Additionally, the uninsured rate is double the rate among the general population: 16.3 percent of early childhood teachers have no health insurance coverage of any type, compared with 8 percent of the U.S. population overall.14 Black and Hispanic teachers were more likely to be uninsured, at 20.4 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively. Among the early childhood workforce, 15.6 percent use health insurance from a public or community program, including Medicare, Medicaid, military/Veterans Affairs Department benefits, and state and local government programs. A significant portion, 14.4 percent, purchase their own private health insurance plan directly.

The wage gap

The 2012 NSECE revealed major wage differences by race and ethnicity. At that time, a full-time Black female teacher earned an average wage of $11.67 per hour, or 84.2 percent of what her white peers earned. The 2019 survey data reveal worsening gaps: Black women are earning 76.3 percent of what white teachers are earning. Hispanic teachers have also experienced a widening wage gap, from 98.4 percent in 2012 to 85.2 percent in 2019.

Figure 4

While inflation-unadjusted hourly wages for white women rose 92 cents during the period from 2012 to 2019, they dropped for Black and Hispanic women by 40 cents and $1.05, respectively. Adjusting for inflation, wages did not rise for white, Black, or Hispanic early childhood teachers. During the seven-year time period, real wages decreased by 4.7 percent for white teachers, 13.7 percent for Black teachers, and 17.5 percent for Hispanic teachers. During the same period of time, average hourly earnings of all private employees grew by 6.1 percent, adjusting for inflation.15

Additionally, there are differences in the wage gap depending upon the ages of children taught. The gap deepens for Black teachers in preschool-age classes: A Black full-time teacher in a preschool-age classroom earns just 66.3 percent of what their non-Hispanic white counterparts earn. For Hispanic teachers, it is worse for infant/toddler classrooms, where they earn 80.2 percent of what white teachers earn.

Using multivariate regression analysis, the racial wage gap for Black teachers remains and is statistically significant even when accounting for geographic factors, such as region, urbanicity, and area poverty level; education; credentials; years of experience; and classroom factors, such as age of children, role, and whether the classroom is part of a public school. These factors do not explain lower pay for Black educators. The difference for Hispanic educators, however, is not statistically significant using these methods. This is consistent with findings from the Center for American Progress’ analysis of the 2012 NSECE data.

Conclusion

The people who work in the child care sector provide a vital, highly skilled service for families across the United States. They are trained and hold early childhood-specific credentials, working to support learning and development for children not yet in school.

In spite of their crucial role in the lives of children and families, early childhood educators are paid abysmally. Real wages have not kept pace with inflation, meaning that early childhood educators’ purchasing power has decreased over the past several years. Already low wages are even lower for Black and Hispanic female teachers, who trail behind their white female counterparts.

Professions that are seen as feminine—those that involve caring for others—are historically undercompensated and are viewed as less valuable economic contributions.16 However, research on both the complexity and importance of early learning environments17 and the macroeconomic necessity of accessible child care18 make clear that child care workers are extremely valuable to the U.S. economy. The child care workforce should be compensated in line with their expertise and imperative role doing the work that allows all other work to happen.

The Early Childhood Policy team is committed to advancing progressive policies with bold, family-friendly solutions that equitably support all children, families, and early educators.

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Endnotes

  1. Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, “Child under age 6 with all available parents in the labor force in the United States,” available at https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/5057-children-under-age-6-with-all-available-parents-in-the-labor-force?loc=1&loct=2#detailed/1/any/false/1729,37,871,870,573,869,36,868,867,133/any/11472,11473 (last accessed June 2022).
  2. Rasheed Malik, “Working Families Are Spending Big Money on Child Care” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/working-families-spending-big-money-child-care/.
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education, “High-Quality Early Learning Settings Depend on a High-Quality Workforce: Low Compensation Undermines Quality” (Washington: 2016), available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/archive/ecd/map/high-quality-early-learning-settings-depend-high-quality-workforce; Andrew J. Mashburn and others, “Measures of Classroom Quality in Prekindergarten and Children’s Development of Academic, Language, and Social Skills,” Child Development 79 (3) (2008): 732–749, available at https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01154.x; Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg and others, “The Relation of Preschool Child-Care Quality to Children’s Cognitive and Social Developmental Trajectories through Second Grade,” Child Development 72 (5) (2001): 1534–1553, available at https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8624.00364; Robert Pianta and others, “Features of Pre-Kindergarten Programs, Classrooms, and Teachers: Do They Predict Observed Classroom Quality and Child-Teacher Interactions?”, Applied Developmental Science 9 (3) (2005): 144–159, available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s1532480xads0903_2.
  4. Caitlin McLean and others, “Early Childhood Workforce Index 2020” (Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, 2021), available at https://cscce.berkeley.edu/workforce-index-2020/report-pdf/.
  5. The NSECE workforce data do not provide detailed information on those who work in family child care home settings. Family child care data are collected in a separate survey. Family child care survey data are available at NSECE Project Team (National Opinion Research Center), “National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), [United States], 2019” (Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2022), available at https://www.childandfamilydataarchive.org/cfda/archives/cfda/studies/37941.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The NSECE data provided separate race and ethnicity variables. In order to create mutually exclusive categories, the authors grouped those who indicated they were Hispanic, regardless of race.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau, “ACS 5-Year Estimates Public Use Microdata Sample, 2019,” available at https://data.census.gov/mdat/#/search?ds=ACSPUMS5Y2019&cv=RAC1P,SEX,HISP_RC1&rv=ESR%281%29&nv=HISP&wt=PWGTP&HISP_RC1=%7B%22S%22%3A%22Recoded%20detailed%20Hispanic%20origin%20recode%22,%22R%22%3A%22HISP%22,%22W%22%3A%22PWGTP%22,%22V%22%3A%5B%5B%2202,03,04,05,06,07,08,09,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24%22,%22Hispanic%22%5D,%5B%2201%22,%22Not%20Spanish%2FHispanic%2FLatino%22%5D%5D%7D (last accessed July 2022).
  9. Rebecca Ullrich, Katie Hamm, and Rachel Herzfeldt-Kamprath, “Underpaid and Unequal: Racial Wage Disparities in the Early Childhood Workforce” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2016), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/underpaid-and-unequal/.
  10. McLean and others, “Early Childhood Workforce Index 2020.”
  11. Ibid.
  12. Bruce D. Meyer, Wallace K.C. Mok, and James X. Sullivan, “The Under-Reporting of Transfers in Household Surveys: Its Nature and Consequences” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau for Economic Research, 2015), available at https://harris.uchicago.edu/files/underreporting.pdf.
  13. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2019” (Washington: 2019), available at https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2019/employee-benefits-in-the-united-states-march-2019.pdf.
  14. Katherine Keisler-Starkey and Lisa N. Bunch, “Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2019” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2020), available at https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-271.html.
  15. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, “Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees, Total Private,” available at https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CES0500000003 (last accessed June 2022). Adjustments for inflation calculated using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm (last accessed July 2022).
  16. Marina Zhavoronkova, Rose Khattar, and Mathew Brady, “Occupational Segregation in America” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/occupational-segregation-in-america/.
  17. Center on the Developing Child, “In Brief: The Science of Early Childhood Development” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015), available at http://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/InBrief-The-Science-of-Early-Childhood-Development.pdf; Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, “Early Childhood Educator Competencies: A Literature Review of Current Best Practices, And a Public Input Process on Next Steps for California” (Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, 2008), available at http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED505290.pdf.
  18. Hailey Gibbs, “4 Reasons the U.S. Economy Needs Comprehensive Child Care,” Center for American Progress, May 24, 2022, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/4-reasons-the-u-s-economy-needs-comprehensive-child-care/.

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Author

Maureen Coffey

Policy Analyst

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