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Why Early Care and Education is Foundational to Advancing Racial and Gender Equity

Written by Amy Shea

What Does ECE Have to do with Equity?

The early care and education (ECE) landscape has been shaped by centuries of racial and gender discrimination via policy, programs and cultural norms. Caring for and teaching babies, toddlers and preschoolers is work whose legacy is rooted in the labor of slaves and domestic servants and has long been relegated as “women’s work.” Today, the ECE workforce is still largely made up of women of color (40% nationwide [1]), the skilled workforce is underpaid (averaging 31% of U.S. median income) [2] and many families are left without options due to the untenable cost of care.

LIIF’s commitment to advancing social justice and racial equity is exemplified by our work in the early care and education field. By creating and expanding ECE slots for children who currently lack access to high quality care and continuing to advocate for outcome-driven ECE policy, we are investing in equitable outcomes for families, teachers and children.

Below, we explore the effects of inequity in the ECE field on families, teachers and children.

Impact on Families: Unequal Access and Skyrocketing Costs of Child Care

Raising a family requires love and patience. It also requires financial security or a living wage to cover needs like food, clothing and shelter. Working parents and caregivers often cannot find affordable childcare, making it difficult for them to juggle piecemeal child care and maintain work.

In California, the average annual cost of infant care is $17,000 – 1.5% greater than the average rent statewide. [3] Although experts agree that ECE benefits a child’s development, well-being and social mobility, [4] programs are largely unaffordable and often inaccessible, especially for low-income families. Further, there is a correlation between income, access and academic success later in life. As of 2018, the poverty rates in the U.S. were highest for Native American people (25%), followed by Black (21%) and Hispanic (18%) people with White and Asian people experiencing the lowest poverty rates (10%, each). [5]

Consider that:

  • While 83% of parents with a child under 5 report that finding quality, affordable child care is a “serious problem” in their area, some families face the added burden of living areas with an undersupply of licensed child care. 57% of Hispanic families and 60% of American Indian or Alaskan Native families live in a “child care desert” – higher than any other group. [6]
  • An average US family spends nearly 10% of their income on child care, a rate 40% higher than what the US Department of Health deems “affordable.” [7] For a Black family, childcare expenses account for 42% of median income. [8]
  • Only 1 in 6 children eligible for federal child care assistance received it in 2013. [9]
  • Low-income families left out of public programs due to systemic barriers spend roughly one-third of their income on child care. [10]

These burdensome costs affect every decision a family makes, like what food they purchase and what health costs they can cover. [11] Many parents take on second or third jobs for more income or leave the labor force entirely because child care costs are greater than their income.

Women are disproportionately affected, since they often earn less than men, and cultural norms suggest women should be primarily responsible for caregiving duties. [12]

Impact on Teachers: The Troubling Origins of Child Care and the Consequences of Low Wages

Women have traditionally been socialized into domestic work and childrearing and are often told that caring for children should be done out of love, not for money. However, paid domestic work has largely been seen as the domain of women of color. “Women’s work” is rarely seen as “real work,” so ECE workers are perpetually undervalued.

The end of slavery presented few job prospects for women who had been enslaved, and establishment leaders serving the free Black population steered them into educational programs that kept them in service to White families. For the first half of the 20th century, White women hired women of lower social status – usually women of color and immigrant women – to do household chores, reinforcing the pervasive narrative that “women of color were uniquely suited to perform the most undesirable household labor, which reaffirmed the lower status of both the work performed and the women who performed it.” [13]

Consider that:

  • Women – disproportionately immigrants and women of color – make up 94% of the ECE professional field. [13]
  • More than 1 in 6 women working in the ECE field live below the poverty line, and these rates are higher for women of color and mothers. [13]
  • Low wages for ECE staff force many to leave the field. An average 30% annual turnover rate reduces the availability and quality of care. [14]
  • ECE funding policies have been historically been “steeped in sexism,” as characterized by our CDFI colleague, IFF.

Impact on Children: What Injustice Looks Like in a Classroom

Early childhood years are crucial for a child’s brain development and gaining social and emotional skills. At best, quality ECE programs provide ample opportunities for learning, building trusting relationships and setting up children for academic success in Kindergarten and beyond.

Consider that:

  • Children of color are less likely to access high-quality early care and education. Black children are twice as likely as Hispanic and White children to be in child care centers rated as “low quality.” [15]
  • The majority of children suspended in preschool (at least 42%) are identified as Black boys. [16]
  • ECE classrooms are more segregated than kindergarten and first grade classrooms. [17]

Research shows that ensuring access to high-quality, affordable ECE programs for children of color who have not had equal access results in long-term benefits such as higher test scores, improved graduation rates, better chances of gainful employment and decreases in incarceration and substance abuse. [15]

What is Our Role in Advancing Social Justice and Racial Equity?

The Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) has been investing in high-quality ECE facilities, programs and small business owners for over 20 years, creating 271,000 slots for children and jobs for the educators who teach and nurture them. Offering grants, loans, capacity building, technical assistance and public advocacy, LIIF builds sustainable community-based systems to support ECE facility financing and development.

As advocates for ECE and equitable opportunities across America, LIIF is committed to creating quality child care slots for working families, well paying jobs for ECE professionals and safe, enriching learning environments for all children. Much of our nation’s inequities in achievement, health and wealth building are borne of the opportunities granted in infancy and early childhood. Thus, we see investment in early care and education as foundational to reclaiming this sector to build wealth for entrepreneurs of color and advancing racial and gender equity.

Check out LIIF’s series on early care and education solutions.

[4] Morrissey, T.W. (2016). Child care and parent labor force participation: a review of the

research literature. New York: Springer Science & Business Media.

Early Care and Education