More than twenty years after Barbara Ehrenreich uncovered deep economic inequities and indignities endured by the working poor, America’s child care workers are sacrificing their own well-being to support the U.S. economy.

In a recent survey conducted by researchers with the RAPID-EC Project at Stanford University, 29 percent of child care workers reported not being able to consistently afford nutritious food in 2021, up from 23 percent prior to the pandemic. Among family, friend and neighbor providers — the license-exempt caregivers who look after more than 5.8 million 0-5-year-olds in their own homes — 34 percent reported experiencing food insecurity in the past six months.

The average child care provider takes home just $13.22 per hour an unlivable wage that is not keeping pace with the 13 percent rise in the cost of groceries in 2022. Child care workers often feed the children in their care two or three meals a day plus snacks, a cost that comes out of their own pockets and sometimes off their own dinner plates.

Paying for the rising cost of food also means child care providers sometimes forgo other expenses — health care, utilities, etc. — that keep them and their own children healthy.

Home Grown, an organization focused on improving the access to and quality of home-based child care, recently convened caregivers from across the country to discuss the issue of food insecurity among child care providers. One participant noted that more and more children are coming to her program hungry.

“Last year about half of the children [12 kids, from age 1 to 10] in my program arrived without having had breakfast,” she said. “Now every single child arrives needing breakfast.”

Yet the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which reimburses child care providers for meals they feed to the children in their care, doesn’t come close to compensating providers for the escalating cost of nutritious food. CACFP reimburses eligible providers for only two meals and one snack per day, for a total reimbursement of approximately $6 per day, per child in home-based family child care programs.

Most egregious, since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, CACFP has used a two-tier system that reimburses some eligible home-based childcare providers at a lower rate than others. According to this system, providers in uniformly low-income neighborhoods or who have incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty rate are designated as Tier 1, while those in mixed-income neighborhoods or with slightly higher incomes are designated as Tier 2 and receive a much lower rate of reimbursement.

Read the full article about childcare providers by Alexandra R. Patterson and Mary Beth Salomone Testa at The Hechinger Report.