Low Pay, No Respect, High Satisfaction
Readers chime in as Emily Yoffe discusses the reality of day care work.
Slate columnist Emily Yoffe was online at Washingtonpost.com to take readers' questions about her two-week adventure working at a day care center. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Emily Yoffe: I'm here to discuss my experiences working at a child care center in D.C. I promise I will not solve the problem of how this country gets high-quality, affordable day care.
No Laughing Matter: Having learned from past experience, I was not eating while reading this Human Guinea Pig column. This one wasn't funny, unlike virtually all of them, but I did enjoy it immensely. It reminded me of how lucky I was to be able to afford high-quality care when my son was 3 months old and I had to return to return to work. For the first 10 months, I visited his class every day at lunch time, initially to breastfeed and then to play with, and be soothed by, the babies for an hour. It was a fantastic experience, made even more so by his calm, wise and delightful teachers. It is astonishing to me how hard those women worked and how little they were paid.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much. At the center where I volunteered, Gap Community Child Care Center in D.C., I was astounded by the patience and competence of these women. We expect so much from them at barely over a minimum wage. I like your point about "being soothed by the babies"—I felt exactly the same way, there is something primal about how good you feel being in a roomful of happy babies.
Rockville, Md.: Why couldn't you have just written about what it was like to work in a day care without taking little digs at working parents? "This schedule made me think of the lovely, shapeless days of my daughter's babyhood, when I was an at-home mother. ... Because of the long hours the children spend, the workers are a primary civilizing influence. They're the ones who do the heavy wiping in toilet-training these children; they're the ones who teach them to set the table before they eat; they're the ones who remind them committing assault is not the way to get a toy."
Do you really think that the parents of kids who go to daycare don't teach them these things? Instead of just writing from the perspective of the employee, you let your bias creep into your article and made judgments about the value of day care vs. staying at home with your child. You should even the score and talk about some of the good things that the kids got from day care.
Emily Yoffe: I didn't mean it as a dig. When my daughter was 2, I sent her off to pre-school. I was just reflecting on the fact that in order for a day care center to function, it has to be a schedule, and the lovely (and also sometimes maddening) thing about being with a young child without a schedule is that you are free to do things like spend the morning at the sandbox. I think the kids at this center are getting a tremendous amount from the experience. I was astounded to see the 3-year-olds setting the table and cleaning up with only a word from the teacher.
Houston: Looking into daycare costs in my area, it is around $1,000 a month, with a typical ratio of five children to one adult. So, for each teacher, they are bringing in $5,000 a month. If this money is not going to the teachers, where is it going?
Emily Yoffe: You have to factor in the costs of rent, utilities, administration, etc. But this would be a good question to ask at your center. Is it possible for the teachers to get a raise? The other side is, Would you want to pay more so they get it?
New York: As the parent of an 18-month-old, I took great interest in your article (I also remember the oil drilling platform one). Looking after just one kid on the weekend is exhausting—I just don't know how people can handle multiple kids all day. We try to be generous at the holidays, but your article reminded me to do more to thank those looking after our child.
Emily Yoffe: You are so right. I really don't know how these women keep the pace and focus that's required day after day. We can't do enough to thank them.
I stayed home for the first year and I had jury duty when my daughter was 10 months, so my husband had to take a day off from work and spend his first 8 hour stretch alone caring for her. He could not get off the floor when I arrived home, he was so exhausted.
Highland Park, NJ.: As a parent who has gotten an insider's glimpse into the day care world, what changes would you make if you had the power to do so? Specifically, what training and/or certification would you like to see all day care workers have, and what compensation would you like to see day care workers earn?
Emily Yoffe: Wouldn't it be wonderful if their salaries were doubled? The national average is about $18,000 a year—that's not a living wage. But I also have no answer as to how we get there. It's clearly not going to happen without subsidies—the government now underwrites about 1/3 of the cost of day care nationally.
There has sometimes been a push to require day care workers to have college degrees. But some studies have found that a certificate course—which lasts a few months—does a lot to improve the skills of the workers, and may be enough. There's no way to make this a job requiring a college education without vastly increasing the salary—which gets us back to the first conundrum.
You have to factor in the costs of rent, utilities, administration, etc.: Insurance is very expensive.
Emily Yoffe: Excellent point—liability is on everyone's mind constantly at a day care center. And the center I was at provides health insurance for the teachers, they are unusual in that, but that's another huge expense
Emily Yoffe writes Slate's "Human Guinea Pig" and "Dear Prudence" columns. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, O the Oprah Magazine, Texas Monthly, the Washington Post, and other publications. She is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.