Why ‘Child Care Professionals’ Make Low Wages

Ezra Klein awards Snark of the Day honors to Megan Carpentier‘s stunning discovery that babysitters don’t earn a lot of money.

Child care professionals are responsible for the health, well-being and development of the fruit of other women’s loins (not mine!) But in exchange for that, the median average salary in 2006 was $17,160. The government survey shows that other comparatively poorly remunerated jobs include bellhops, ($16,120), gaming dealers ($13,179), bartenders ($13,104), dishwashers ($16,012), maids ($16,640) and cashiers ($17,992). Of course, none of those people are responsible for your children on a daily basis, and, though I do love my cadre of bartenders it does seem like, if I had kids, I’d want the women in charge of making sure my kids grow up relatively normal to get paid more than the guy who helps gets me wasted on a Friday night. But I guess that’s what happens when women start demanding money for what many of us are socially expected to do for free.

Yes, Megan has discovered the evil patriarchy at work. Either that, or, um, economics.

People are paid what they’re “worth” in terms of economic exchange, not what they’re “worth” to society. Sometimes, the two match up nicely. Brain surgeons, for example, make a lot of money in exchange for providing incredibly valuable services. Schoolteachers, on the other hand, make relatively little money despite being in an occupation whose services are quite needed. Similarly, professional athletes and coaches make a ton more money than they would on a “social value” scale. (See my article for TCS, “Crimson with Envy: Why Nick Saban Makes More Than Your Kid’s Teacher,” for a detailed discussion of the latter phenomenon.)

The irony of Megan’s argument is that, if we paid our “child care professionals” like, say, attorneys, then virtually all mothers would have to stay at home, since it would be idiotic, indeed, to pay more to have someone take care of your kids so you can go to work than you earn working. (Although, many are doing exactly that, when all the costs are factored in.)

Exchanges have to make some semblance of sense. Let’s posit the case of a married mother who works as a cosmetologist earning the median 2006 annual salary for her occupation (i.e., the same data point used for Megan’s child care providers) of $20,094. If she’s paying $17,160 for child care, she’s losing money going to work. (She has to pay taxes, obviously, and there are some commuting, laundry, restaurant, and other expenses associated with working.) Unless her husband is making a lot of money and she just really loves cosmetology and hates changing diapers, this would be a poor trade-off, indeed. Ditto if she’s a cashier making $18,304.

If she’s a real estate broker making $47,880 or an educational administrator bringing in $77,501 it starts to make some sense.

Now, let’s say she’s a CEO ($140,013) or a lawyer ($101,695) or a surgeon ($124,573). Suddenly, going cheap and paying only the $17,160 median rate becomes questionable. After all, you are likely living an upper middle class lifestyle — or better, if your husband is similarly successful — and you can afford the very best for your kids. Now, it makes sense to hire a private nanny to take care of your kids. Preferably, a college graduate with some specialized training that can help prepare your kids for that expensive preschool you got on the waiting list for when you were thirteen weeks pregnant. Guess what? Those people command upwards of $30,000 a year. (Much more if you want a newborn specialist.)

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Gender Issues, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    If Carpenter got her wish in terms of childcare pay, the sweet young thing who sat my kids years ago, would still be in the business.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Also worth considering the federal tax breaks for child care payments. IIRC the first $5k per child is tax free, which would contribute to boosting child care salaries.

  3. DL says:

    If you’re going to give us child-care costs, don’t forget to factor in those who will do the work that Americans won’t do.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Schoolteachers, on the other hand, make relatively little money despite being in an occupation

    Depends on where you are. Here in Chicago teachers with entry level qualifications start at significantly more than entry level pay.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Here in Chicago teachers with entry level qualifications start at significantly more than entry level pay.

    Teachers are actually generally well paid given the low barriers to entry and working conditions. The latter can be abysmal in urban and/or incredibly poor areas but, generally, it’s a nice job.

    Still, “education” is so highly prized that people argue that the purveyors of same should be much more highly paid. The economics mitigate against that, though, given the numbers and the source of funding (taxpayers).

  6. bains says:

    A quibble, I admit…

    People are paid what they’re “worth” in terms of economic exchange, not what they’re “worth” to society. Sometimes, the two match up nicely. Brain surgeons, for example, make a lot of money in exchange for providing incredibly valuable services. Schoolteachers, on the other hand, make relatively little money despite being in an occupation whose services are quite needed.

    There is a crucial aspect left out here. Brain surgeons make lots of money because they are very good at what they do. Teachers earn mediocre wages irrespective of how poorly they may perform their job. In terms teachers are well aware of, brain surgeons, a subset of doctors, occupy the far right of a bell curve.

    Teachers, on the other hand, are the population that makes the bell curve. There are a good number of teachers that are by far under compensated for the services they provide, but there is an equal amount that are by far, overcompensated.