Imagine your job was to care for one of our country’s most important resources. The role requires finesse, compassion, and a wide variety of skills honed through years of experience. What would you expect to get paid? Less than the average janitor?

The resource in your custody is, of course, our children, and the job is that of a child care worker. Despite the high value we place on our kids, those who are paid to look after them are receiving poverty-level wages. And though the cost of daycare continues to skyrocket, the average childcare worker in the United States earns just $9.77 per hour, amounting to a paltry salary of $20,320 a year. 

A staggering 15% of child care workers live below the federal poverty line. Such low wages cause significant problems for their families – and indicate a serious cultural shortcoming.

One study of 600 child care employees found that three-quarters of them worried about having enough money to pay the bills, sadly, with good reason. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, a child care worker earning the median income for their field would have to spend more than their entire salary to put two children of their own in center-based care. For example, the average child care professional living in Hawaii earns less than $19,000 a year, while the annual bill for two kids in daycare is nearly $25,000.

Most child care workers aren’t receiving job-based benefits that help make up for low wages, either. Only 15 percent receive health insurance through their jobs, and less than 10 percent benefit from a pension plan. 

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who’s spent time caring for children (their own, or others’) that the work is deeply undervalued. As a society, we intensely treasure our children, but we don’t tend to look as fondly upon the people who care for them. Nearly 97% of child care workers are female, and a disproportionate number of them are women of color. But child care is not simply another low-wage occupation. In fact, the hourly wage of child care workers is 23 percent lower than that of workers in similar occupations. 

Perhaps because most adults have cared for children at one point or another, or because most child care positions don’t require higher education, our country views this traditionally female occupation as low-skilled. And in spite of mounting evidence regarding the importance of early childhood care and education, we still don’t tend to view child care workers as teachers. We’ve never truly respected the work of caregivers, and that attitude is reflected in their paycheck.

So if the people we’re paying to care for our children are so poorly paid, why do most families spend more on childcare than they do on food? The answer lies in the regulations that govern child care centers.

Centers are required to keep high staff-child ratios. For infant care, states can require daycares to have as many as one staff person for every three kids. For toddlers, the staff-child ratio is lower, but centers still might need at least one staff person for every six kids. Furthermore, the law might limit the total group size, even if the required ratio is met. A classroom of two-year-olds, for example, could not be any bigger than 10-12 children. 

The high staffing requirement isn’t the only factor driving child care costs into the stratosphere. As a heavily regulated industry, even the square footage needed per child in classrooms and playgrounds can be dictated by state law. Childcares can’t downsize and risk overcrowding to reduce their costs, and thus in states with high rents and property values, child care costs are also high. Centers also face other costs – insurance, activities, supplies, and professional development and training.

With daycare already being one of the single largest (if not the largest) cost most families face, the best option for centers to keep their costs competitive is to keep wages as low as possible. 

As costs continue to grow, policy makers have started to recognize that something must be done. President-Elect Donald Trump has proposed relaxing the staff size requirements in order to lower tuition and raise employee wages. 

But experts say that reducing the number of educators and caregivers in a classroom also runs the risk of reducing the safety of the program. Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Association for the Education of Young Children have long pointed to high staff-child ratios as a way to provide a safe, high quality educational environment for our youngest learners. While a deregulated free market approach might result in lower costs, it would almost certainly put low-income children whose families can’t afford to attend daycares with higher standards at a greater risk of receiving lower-quality care.

If we wish to keep parents – especially women – in the workforce, pay child care workers a living wage, and ensure the safety of all children, the best approach might be for government to invest in early care and education, just as it does with college.

Currently, parents pay about 60 percent of child care costs, with 40 percent being publicly funded. Most of this funding comes through sources such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Social Services Block Grant, or Head Start. Despite these programs to assist low-income families, the cost of care still remains a huge burden for many parents. 

By contrast, over three-quarters of the cost of public college is funded through state and federal funds. Less than a quarter comes directly from families. Early childhood care and education is an equally worthy investment for states and the federal government to make.

Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman has argued that the importance of high quality child care starts at birth, and that high quality programs for disadvantaged infants and toddlers can have a 13 percent yearly return on investment. Increasing public assistance for child care can help ease the burden many families feel, as well as benefit the economy, our children, and the workers who care for them.