This year, Congress did something remarkable. With bipartisan support, they doubled the Child Care and Development Block Grant to $5.8 billion. Across the United States, candidates for governor are talking about early care and education (ECE) and calling for change because they know we have an ECE crisis. As our 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index shows, the economic distress of early educators makes another election cycle too long to wait for reform.

Early educators’ skills, knowledge, and well-being are inseparable from the quality of children’s early learning experiences. Yet, under our system of preparing, supporting, and compensating early educators in the United States, the almost-entirely female ECE workforce struggles to provide for their own families and, in many cases, to put food on the table. Such unlivable wages mean ECE workforce turnover is common, putting children’s development at risk, while parents struggle to pay child care costs. In this mostly privatized system, no one wins.

What have we learned since the inaugural 2016 Early Childhood Workforce Index?

Our new Index report finds that strides have been made in improving education and training levels of the ECE workforce, but these advancements are seldom linked to policies and resources that address teachers’ economic well-being.

And we identify a serious wage gap linked to race. Women of color comprise about 40 percent of the ECE workforce. Yet African American early educators earn $0.78 per hour less than their white counterparts, even after controlling for educational attainment.

We also find that the younger the child, the lower the pay. Despite scientific evidence that the first years of life coincide with the most sensitive period of brain development, the Index documents that across the nation, 86 percent of center-based teaching staff working with infants and toddlers earn less than $15 an hour and 67 percent earn less than $10.10 an hour.

This wage penalty for working with infants and toddlers disproportionately affects African American women. More than half (52 percent) of African American early educators work with infants and toddlers, compared to 43 percent of all center-based workers.

Our report further documents that these and other identified disparities are often driven by policy and funding sources that have created an uneven playing field in which few early educators have access to livable wages.

While there are small pockets of progress, not one state has met the challenge of transforming early childhood jobs for all, or even most, early educators. To do so requires transforming broader early childhood policies and infrastructure and embracing early care and education as a public good. The time for reform is long overdue; too many early educators are in economic distress, and too many children and their families lack access to high-quality early care and education.

We are not alone in our call for systemic change. Earlier this year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a report that clearly stated that the United States needs significant reforms and public investment to provide children with access to quality early care and education, which includes well-prepared and well-compensated teachers.

Our Index report offers specific recommendations to inform state policies and strategies to transform early education jobs across all segments of the workforce and, thus, early learning and development experiences for children.

Over the next year, we’ll highlight key findings from the 2018 Index and associated materials. Stay tuned!