Business

Child care workers’ pay stagnant over 20 years

The earnings of child-care workers have barely increased in about two decades, leaving nearly half of them to rely on public assistance and affecting learning environments during a critical period in child development, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report, by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley, found that difficulties child-care workers face in making ends meet create high levels of stress that can affect their performance. Recent research has found that adverse interactions with caregivers early on can alter a child’s genetic chemistry, impairing memory, the immune system, and mental health.

“We know that when adults are really stressed it interferes with their ability to provide responsive interactions with children — what children need and what the brain needs,” said Marcy Whitebook, a study coauthor. “It’s not good for kids, it’s not good for the people doing the work, and it’s not good for the parents who are paying so much for these services.”

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Child-care workers earn an average of $10.33 an hour nationally, up from an inflation-adjusted $10.20 in 1997.

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Massachusetts child-care workers average $12.47 an hour, the highest in the nation, but the rate has increased just 2 cents since 1997, adjusted for inflation.

Yet at the same time, early- education requirements have become more stringent, and the price that parents pay for child care has nearly doubled.

Child-care providers earn only slightly more than fast- food cooks, the report said.

Kitt Cox, who has a bachelor’s degree, spent most of his professional life working in child care but had to hold second or third jobs in restaurants and warehouses to supplement his income at private day-care centers and preschools on the North Shore.

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“We jokingly say, on tough days, we should be saying, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ ” said Cox, 59, of Gloucester. And yet, “Kids are so much more important than burgers.”

Child-care providers are expected to plan science, literacy, and math-related activities that have been shown to aid development, said Valora Washington, president of the CAYL Institute in Jamaica Plain, a professional development group for early-childhood educators.

“Our expectations are accelerating much faster than the compensation and the recognition of those accelerated expectations,” Washington said.

In many cases, child-care workers’ low wages don’t allow them to provide for their families. In a survey of 600 who earn less than $12.50 an hour, more than half said they worried about having enough food for their families, according to the report.

Nationwide, 46 percent of child-care workers’ families are on public assistance; in Massachusetts, more than a third rely on public support.

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Michelle Rubin and her two assistants take care of 10 children under age 5 at Happy Hands Child Care, operated out of the back of Rubin’s home in Greenfield. Rubin, who is divorced, puts in at least 60 hours a week and makes $17,000 a year — not nearly enough to provide for herself and her three children. She gets fuel assistance, the earned income tax credit, and is on MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program. She also qualifies for food stamps but hasn’t had time to apply.

‘Our expectations are accelerating much faster than the compensation.’

Rubin, who is constantly juggling funds to keep her operation afloat, has been unable to refinance her house because she is often late on her mortgage payments.

“I have gained weight over this because I stress out over it,” she said. “It’s from paycheck to paycheck.”

To qualify for more money from the state, which provides child-care subsidies for low-income families, Rubin has beefed up her curriculum and added a part-time assistant. Still, her rate from the state has risen by less than $5 a day per child since she opened her center in 2000.

The report, which calls the conditions affecting early- childhood teachers “intolerable,” calls on policy makers to identify a dedicated public funding source for raising wages and establish salary guidelines and workplace standards.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.