Rinku Sen

MADISON, Wis. (WOMENSENEWS)–Suzanne Powell loves teaching small children, but she can’t afford to do it anymore. Among her peers at the annual Center for the Child Care Workforce summer institute on Monday, Powell broke down in tears as she told the group that she had just resigned the week before.

Fed up with poor working conditions and tired of being deemed as “unskilled” labor, Powell was one of approximately 250 women from all over the United States who gathered at the University of Wisconsin here to band together and begin organizing in order to gain more respect for their profession.

“I’m tired of being seen as mindless because I work with children all day,” Melissa Bowen, a teacher and organizer in San Francisco, said. “Parents say things to us like, ‘I don’t know how you do this all day,’ as if they are really saying, ‘I have a real job, you can stay here all day and do nothing with the children.'”

Margie Carter, author of several books for child care providers, said that the low regard most hold for child care workers eats away at the providers’ self-esteem.

“While the external barriers, like low wages and low respect by other professions, are very real, the participants here are learning how to confront and deal with the internal barriers,” she said. “Child care providers need to find worth and value in their work, and with that we hope that the high staff turnover rates will decline.”

Carter also said that although many political leaders pay lip service to the importance of child care, the quest to improve it is pushed to the wayside because caring for children generally is not profitable.

“We don’t value that which doesn’t make a profit,” she said. “And if the children don’t make us money, then we don’t value the people who care for them–whether they are stay-at-home parents or child care providers.”

Child Care Providers Seen as Missionaries

Rosemarie Vardell, director of the institute, agrees.

“Child care providers are people, mostly women, who care about children,” she said. “We are seen as missionaries and, while that can make us feel good, missionaries aren’t supposed to want anything in return for their work, so they are not paid well and not valued highly as productive members of society.”

Founded in 1978, the Center for the Child Care Workforce is a non-profit research, education and advocacy organization committed to improving child care quality by upgrading the compensation, working conditions and training of child care workers. The institute also coordinates two efforts to promote organization, leadership and advancement for teachers and providers.

A widely accepted study done on the economics of family child care by the Family Child Care Project of Wheelock College, Boston, in 1994 found that the average individual child care provider made a gross income of $15,151 per year, leaving her with an annual taxable income of a little more than $10,000.

“Just do the math,” Bowen said. “If a home day care provider charges $100–the average going rate for a week’s worth of care–per child, then that is only $2.50 an hour per child. If a woman cares for two or three children, then she is making between $5 and $7 an hour for really hard work. It’s just sad that women aren’t valued for this work.”

Although not at the conference, Ann Crittenden, author of the best-selling “The Price of Motherhood,” placed the issue in a similar economic perspective.

“The problem is that the biggest competitor to child care is the unpaid mother,” Crittenden said. “And the lowest-paid child care workers are the family child care providers, mothers who stay home and watch other people’s children. These women don’t see themselves as a valuable part of the workforce.”

Myth Persists That Providers Don’t Rely on Fee Income

The idea that providing child care is not a profession but a source of “extra” income for women who have spouses with “better” jobs perpetuates the poverty cycle among child care providers, Crittenden said.

“Until all women who work in child care begin to feel like professionals,” she said, “we will continue to have a problem getting respect for that work.”

Rinku Sen, a conference speaker from the Center for Third World Organizing, focused on the effect of gender roles.

Providing child care is seen as a reproductive duty–along with cooking and cleaning–and is the single largest barrier to gaining justice and worth, she said.

“These reproductive duties are not duties that men usually take a lot of responsibility for,” she added. “They are thought to be natural to women. We as women are automatically thought to be great teachers and nurturers. And if they come to us naturally, then that must mean there is no skill involved in doing it, so the women who perform these tasks are not valued for their work.”

Sen warned that the movement to make child care a profession, while valid and attractive, might not be the total solution.

“We have been taught to believe that the only person worth paying well is the one with the degree,” she said. “Of course, I would not discourage anyone from going to college, but be aware that many providers have provided great care for generations without a degree, and rather than think that the only way to gain respect is to get a degree, you need to organize.”

Sen also said that receiving benefits like paid leave and an eight-hour day are not unreasonable requests.

“You know you are skilled workers,” she told the audience. “You know you work hard. You don’t need an institution to tell you that. You deserve to be paid what you are worth.”

Michelle Kennedy is a free-lance writer, syndicated columnist and reporter for the Green Bay News-Chronicle.