Child Care: Invaluable and Undervalued
Direct payments to home-based child care providers can sustain them and the essential work they do to care for the children of working Americans.
Carmela Enriquez cares for five children in her home-based child care program in Greeley, Colorado. Her first “client,” a baby, arrives at 5 a.m., blanket clutched tight in his fist. She lets him sleep a while longer while she prepares the day’s activities and snacks. By 7:20 a.m., the toddlers arrive. Later in the day, she may have older children who come after elementary school. Their parents will pick them up at dinner time, which is nearly 6:30 p.m. on most days.
Enriquez works multiple 13-hour days a week, without sick leave, health insurance, or a retirement fund. She’s been caring for the kids of family, friends, and neighbors for 17 years. And she loves her work. But she also believes she deserves what other workers have: a bit of security and stability for herself and her family.
Enriquez is one of more than 5 million nanas, aunties, abuelitas, and neighbors who, according to the National Survey of Early Care and Education, care for more than 12 million children ages 0 to 13 in home-based child care businesses. More than half of these children are under age 5. These providers comprise both the largest and the lowest-paid sector of the child care workforce, often earning less than half of what their peers in child care centers make.
The median income of paid providers is just $18,399 a year, which Enriquez says is far more than she’s ever earned even after decades in the business. Often Enriquez charges low-income parents a little bit less, which means her daily income is sometimes just over $50.
Home-based child care enables working parents to fulfill their commitments to both work and care. Parents of color, single parents, low-income parents, and others whose child care choices are limited by income or circumstance choose home-based care because it is accessible, available during nontraditional hours, and culturally relevant—home-based caregivers often speak the same home language, celebrate the same traditions and holidays, provide culturally familiar foods, and have culturally affirming child care philosophies vis-à-vis the families they serve. Yet the workers, who are predominantly women and disproportionately women of color, often can’t afford to go to the doctor or take a vacation.
Olivia Hernandez, another provider in Greeley, notes that in her eight years of caring for children, she’s only taken one sick day. “Caregivers sometimes pay for extra food or medicine for the children of low-income families they serve,” she says. “But we don’t hold back [any care from the families we serve] to take care of ourselves.”
Now, Home Grown, a national nonprofit that channels funders’ dollars to initiatives that increase access to and the quality of home-based child care, is launching a bold initiative called the Thriving Providers Project to provide no-strings-attached cash payments to caregivers, including license-exempt home-based providers like Enriquez and Hernandez.
The organization has already raised more than $1 million to support its implementation in multiple states. It has partnered with local organizations to raise additional funds to supplement the income of home-based child care workers (who have largely been excluded from federal and state pandemic relief packages) with direct cash payments.
The Thriving Providers Project’s direct payments are made regularly, for as long as 18 months, and counter the meager compensation home-based providers typically receive. Just as importantly, these payments bolster providers’ confidence and sense of legitimacy. “There’s robust evidence that direct cash transfers reduce poverty by stabilizing households, reducing inequality, and enabling economic mobility,” says Jourdan McGinn, a program consultant for Impact Charitable who is overseeing the Thriving Providers Project launch in Colorado.
Adopting and scaling this solution in child care could be a game changer for millions of workers, giving child care providers the room to fully dedicate themselves to their work and assuring families that they can go to work without worrying about who’s taking care of the kids.
State and local partnering organizations (both private and public) in different communities will set the parameters for how funds are distributed and to whom. But Home Grown Executive Director Natalie Renew is optimistic that Colorado’s leadership will set the pace for programs across the country, including partnerships already established in Nashville, Tennessee; Los Angeles County, California; and King County, Washington.
In Colorado, partner organizations will give direct cash payments—between $300 and $1,250 a month—to more than 70 family, friend, and neighbor child care providers, including those who are currently not paid at all but who meet the state’s regulations for license-exempt child care. “These are the women who have shown up over and over again for the broadest group of low-wage workers in this country, families who do essential jobs, work nonstandard or unpredictable hours, or live in areas underserved by the formal child care sector,” says Renew.
So far, Colorado’s project is unique in including license-exempt providers like Hernandez and Enriquez, both of whom sit on the project’s advisory committee. Partly in response to their guidance, eligibility will prioritize providers who want to stay in the child care field long-term.
Enriquez points out that child care providers often have out-of-pocket costs that lower their take-home pay. For example, it typically costs about $90 to renew her CPR certification. “That is about what I make for taking care of one child for a whole week. So this extra money will really make a difference in my ability to maintain my training and purchase materials for my program.”
“We believe that if caregivers are not having to worry about if they can pay their rent or afford food or find another job, they will also be able to improve the quality of interactions they have with the kids in their care, and they will invest time and energy in professional growth,” says McGinn. “We did over a dozen focus groups; every provider we talked to said that if they could just go beyond worrying about their financial survival, they would leap on those opportunities.”
She sees the program as “an investment not just in creating a more stable supply of child care for workers, but also in [improving] the professionalism, well-being, and dignity of the child care workforce.”
Elsewhere in the country, states including Ohio and Wisconsin have compensated child care providers with “hero pay” to supplement low and sometimes unpredictable wages as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. In Washington, D.C., the city council has stepped up to pay licensed child care workers across the district a one-time $10,000 bonus.
Cynthia Davis, who runs the home-based Kings & Queens Childcare Center in Washington, D.C., has advocated strongly for direct payments. “The truth is,” she says, “when a lot of centers shut down during COVID, we family child care providers are the ones who kept the economy afloat. We reached into our own pockets and worked crazy hours. You can’t ask me to give so much of myself that I can’t provide for my own family. These payments are a way of showing that we are equal, that we are being counted, and we are being seen.”
“Direct cash payments are good for everyone in the child care ecosystem, including employers,” echoes Renew. “But for us at Home Grown, the bigger goal is to influence the policy for child care subsidy and payment systems across the board by demonstrating that when we compensate caregivers equitably and adequately, everyone wins.”
What’s Good for Child Care Workers Is Also Good for Working Parents
New research on the relationship between home-based child care workers and the parents enrolled in their programs suggests that child care providers play a key role in the well-being of parents who work outside the home. Laura Jimenez, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, conducted interviews with dozens of parents and home-based caregivers and found that parents often see their child care providers as mentors and even therapists—someone who can talk them back from the edge when their own working-parent stress is too much to manage.
According to Jimenez, home-based caregivers go above and beyond typical center-based practices to help parents with daily routines (like picking kids up from school or bedtime reading for a child whose parent works nights), help them solve financial challenges, provide instrumental parenting information, and offer emotional and social support during family crises.
Because families often stay with the same caregiver for many years, says Jimenez, parents report having strong and lasting connections that reduce their own stress and increase well-being. “There’s a significant correlation between the quality of the relationship parents have with their child care provider and parents’ own stress.” The better the relationship, the less stressed parents feel, says Jimenez.