Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning.   

Mississippi child care workers are strained by low pay and lack of training — but an additional $5 an hour in salary would prompt around half of those workers to stay in their jobs and to seek additional education, according to a new survey by state child care advocates.

The coalition Mississippi Forum for the Future surveyed nearly 700 child care workers, most of whom provide care in centers, to draw attention to the precariousness of the child care sector in the state. Early childhood educators are facing strain across the nation, but Mississippi is in a particularly difficult position: Workers reported an average hourly wage of $10.93 and typically have no benefits. In contrast, a “survival wage” in the state for a single adult is $12.28 an hour, according to the report.

Nationally, child care workers earn $14.22 on average, according to federal labor statistics.

Additional information gathered from the survey:

  • Just under 70 percent of child care workers said they worked 40 or more hours a week.
  • More highly educated workers earned more, but the differences were not large: Child care employees with a high school diploma reported earning $10.22 an hour on average, but those with a bachelor’s degree or higher said their salary averaged $12.79 an hour.
  • Close to half, or 48 percent of the workers surveyed, said they did not have training beyond high school. A similar percentage of child care workers — 47 percent — reported that they are working with children who have mental, physical, or emotional disabilities.
  • About 36 percent said they relied on public support programs such as Medicaid or the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
  • A little more than a third reported they had looked for a new job, and of that group, most of them were looking for jobs out of the child care sector.

In the midst of these stresses, demand for child care in the state is still quite high.

Lesia Daniel-Hollingshead has provided child care services in her community of Clinton, Mississippi, a suburb west of Jackson, for nearly 25 years. After she taught children in public schools, her passion prompted her to open several child care centers. Since the inception of her child care ventures in 2000, more than 7,000 children have received child care at My First Funtime, Funtime Pre-School and Funtime After-School.

During the pandemic, Hollingshead’s facilities suffered a 50 percent decline in enrollment. But by 2021, an overwhelming number of families with infants sought her child care services. In October 2021, to meet demand, she opened My First Funtime, a center for infants and toddlers 6 weeks to 18 months old.

“We opened My First Funtime in October of 2021, by December we had enrolled 66 infants,” Hollingshead said. “My program is currently full — and not because of the number of enrollments but because I have the number of children for the staff that I can maintain.”

The survey findings did not surprise Daniel-Hollingshead, who said she pays her lead teachers $14 to $20 an hour, based on education and experience. Her less-experienced employees are paid $9 to $10 an hour. Families of infants up through 5 year olds pay $184 a week for her center; the rate is among the most expensive in her area, she said.

Biz Harris, the executive director of the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance, said that the state has recently launched an initiative meant to provide extra money to teachers and to provide scholarships for those who engage in additional training.

However, that program is funded through emergency funds that came from the federal government during the pandemic, and thus will sunset when the money is exhausted.

“We would love to see a program like this have the funds to continue, and worry about what will happen to the already struggling child care workforce when it ends,” Harris said. “Other states do provide these kinds of programs for their child care teachers as a workforce investment.”

Daniel-Hollingshead said while that money is appreciated, she still struggles to hold on to employees and has waiting lists at every age level.

“Currently it is extremely difficult to retain staff,” she said. “Due to the pay rates that I have had to increase to keep my best people, we are operating over budget about $25,000 a month which obviously is not sustainable long-term.”

This story about child care wages was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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