March is Women's History Month, created to “commemorate and encourage the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” Two areas in which women’s contributions have often been unacknowledged and underappreciated are our role in driving social change and our work as caregivers. This Women’s History Month, DC Action is highlighting an area where the two overlap: the fight - led largely by women - for accessible early childhood education, with a fairly compensated work force, in the District.
Historically women have been the primary caregivers in families and communities, and our society has long undervalued the vital importance of that work. While that’s true of caregiving for all ages, in the United States caring for infants and toddlers has a particularly fraught history, since enslaved women were forced to provide care for the infants and toddlers of those who enslaved them, often at the cost of their own children. Even with the abolition of slavery, these inequities have been reproduced from generation to generation as reform efforts have been thwarted and women’s–in particular Black women’s–labor, have been consistently undervalued. Even today in the District, the vast majority of educators for infants and toddlers continue to be women of color. And as of May 2021, median annual wages for early childhood educators were $36,338–barely above minimum wage.
One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that families and employers became more acutely aware of the importance of quality care for young children. In the first year of the pandemic, two-thirds of working parents surveyed nationally reported having changed their childcare arrangements due to COVID-19, and the majority had yet to find a permanent solution. Of parents who left the workforce by fall 2020, more than half (58%) said that it was because they were unable to find a childcare situation that met their needs. In the District and nationally, the pandemic made it clear how reliant our society is on those who care for and educate children. Even before the pandemic, however, things were beginning to change. With our increased understanding of brain development in the youngest years there’s more reason than ever to appreciate both the hard work and the critical impact of caring for infants and toddlers.
Thanks in large part to infant and toddler educators - mostly women - speaking out as part of the Under 3 DC coalition led largely by women, District officials have moved to treat early childhood educators more like we do teachers in our public school system, providing increased pay through the pay equity fund beginning in fall 2022 and, starting January 2023, health insurance. Some of the strongest legislative champions for the pay equity fund were women as well, echoing the national example of Representatives Shirley Chisom and Bella S. Abzug, who introduced and shepherded through a national universal child care bill at the beginning of the 1970s only to have it vetoed by President Nixon.
The pay equity fund had only begun to impact early childhood educators’ financial well-being in October 2022 when the National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed early childhood educators, revealing that a lower percentage of respondents reported financial instability in the past year in the District compared to nationally (13% vs. 30%), and a higher percentage reported receiving more money from a wage increase or supplement (69% vs. 49%). When working in early childhood education is a more financially viable option it can increase the number of people doing so, helping to make child care more accessible for families as well.
While we’re clearly making progress in how we treat early childhood educators, we still have room for improvement in how we support other groups of women. For example, across the US, single moms were particularly likely to face unemployment during the early months of the pandemic. In the District between 2017 and 2021, an average of 36% of District families were headed by a single woman. Families headed by single women tend to struggle financially. Nearly half (46%) of District children raised by a single mom have family incomes below the poverty line, compared to 17% of children raised by a single dad and 5% of children raised by a married couple. As we mark Women’s History Month, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the progress we’ve made and reflect on what still needs to be done.