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Perspective | Minimum wage, Equal Pay Days, and early childhood value

This month we mark two notable days: the anniversary of the federal government’s minimum wage on July 24 and Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on July 27. These dates are important when we talk about the importance of earning a living wage or a family-sustaining wage and its value for young children’s lives. 

A living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. On the other hand, a family-sustaining wage is defined by the MIT Living Wage Calculator as earning enough to cover necessary expenses — such as food, medical care, child care, housing, and transportation — without having to rely on financial assistance from other sources. Given the variability of how families are constituted and the increase in female-headed families and single-person families, it is important to measure and advocate for both metrics of household self-sufficiency.   

Even more important, when we think about parents being able to provide for their children and cover the cost of child care, we also want to ensure fair and competitive wages for those providing that care and education during early childhood. 

Child care teachers, who are often women of color, are more than essential. They are the workforce behind the workforce. Families rely on our early education system in order to keep working, and our state’s economy does, too. But we don’t pay these teachers in accordance with their incredible value to society. Many fast food staff earn higher wages than child care providers. 

Anniversary of federal minimum wage: July 24

The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 per hour for 14 years. Over these years, several individual states have taken action to raise their own minimum wages. The top five minimum wage states in the U.S. are District of Columbia, Washington, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. 

Twenty-seven states raised their minimum wage in 2023; however, the minimum wage in North Carolina matches that of the federal minimum wage rate at $7.25 per hour for non-tipped employees. The state minimum wage is the same for all individuals, regardless of how many dependents they may have. According to the MIT living wage calculation for North Carolina, the numbers range from $16.83 per hour for one working adult living alone to $61.00 per hour for one working adult supporting three children. 

Demand for a living wage that is fair to workers and comparable to the value of their work is rising. In response to this rising demand, numerous states, cities, and other localities have already enacted or will change minimum wage levels. Not increasing the minimum wage is an issue of racial equity — many impacted are women of color working in low-paying jobs.

Black Women’s Equal Pay Day: July 27

Families headed by women and Black, Latinx, or Hispanic people are much more likely to be struggling economically — both before and since the pandemic. Women with young children, especially those in low socioeconomic (SES) households, are a large part of the employment system and the lack of available and affordable child care is likely disrupting their education and economic progress. Additionally, women constitute the majority of part-time, low-wage workers for many North Carolina communities and disproportionately serve as the primary caregiver in the home. 

We observe different demographic equal pay days throughout the year to raise awareness about the harmful wage gaps faced by women of color as compared to their white non-Hispanic male counterparts. 

Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, observed on July 27, is the approximate day a Black woman must work into the new year to make what a white, non-Hispanic man made at the end of the previous year. Based on Census data from 2022, the wage gap for Black women compared to non-Hispanic white men is 67 cents for full-time, year-round workers and 64 cents for all workers (including part-time).

Gender pay inequality shows up in a variety of ways.

According to Equal Pay Today,

“The average woman must work far into the next year to earn what the average man earns the previous year. If the gender wage gap were eliminated, the average woman would have enough additional money every year for:

  • An entire additional year of child care;
  • One year of tuition and fees for a 4-year public university, or the full cost of tuition and fees for a 2-year college;
  • More than 9 months of rent for the following year;
  • 7 months of health insurance (premiums through employer-based plans);
  • More than a year’s worth of food; or
  • Enough money to pay off their student loan debt in under 4 years.”

A new study from Equal Rights Advocates shows over 50% of Black and Latinx struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Worthy wages for early childhood professionals

Improving the child care system would make a long-lasting impact on North Carolina’s economic future and stability. Despite their essential role, child care teachers remain woefully underpaid and undervalued for the critically important work they do. These teachers, overwhelmingly women and primarily women of color, have remained in the classroom throughout COVID-19 and during the economic recovery transition period, earning low wages and risking their health to care for the children of working families.

As of June 2023, the average hourly pay for a child care worker in North Carolina was $10.73 an hour. Across all types of programs — whether public or private, those with a 5-star rating in 2019 paid a median starting salary of $13.46 per hour to a high of $18.72 per hour compared to just $9.00 per hour to $12.00 per hour in 3-star or below programs.

We celebrate educators, but we don’t pay them their worth. 

Early educators and care providers across North Carolina are sharing their challenges of providing quality care to young children at a reasonable cost. Families and communities are telling their stories of the impact of not having access to affordable child care. This lack of care contributes to widening income inequality. Changing this could close gender, racial, and other socioeconomic gaps.

Family, community, and caregiver voices are being heard and employers are weighing in too, but hearing is not action.

Family Forward policies

Family workplace policies have not kept pace with the dramatic rise in the number of working families over the last few decades. The immediate and long-term business advantages and positive outcomes to child and family health and well-being are well-documented.

Through our Guide to Family Forward Workplacesresearch, and the exchange of ideas among business leaders, employees and organizations, Family Forward NC, an initiative of the NC Early Childhood Foundation, promotes workforce investments such as paid parental leave, support for breastfeeding mothers, employer-sponsored child care options, and accommodations for pregnant workers, which support children’s healthy development and a competitive business environment.

Offering family-sustaining wages, as part of a portfolio of family-forward policies, has numerous benefits for employers, children, and parents and families. 

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The NC Early Childhood Foundation is driven by a bold — and achievable — vision: Each North Carolina child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being supported by a comprehensive, equitable birth-to-eight ecosystem. We build understanding, lead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each North Carolina child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.

Lindsay Saunders

Lindsay Saunders is the marketing and communications director at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.