Much of the childcare infrastructure in the United States was built by women of color, yet historically they’ve never been paid what they’re worth. It’s time for society to recognize this and support this vital industry before it collapses. These small business owners, early childhood educators and caregivers are the invisible engine that pulls American women into the workforce and propel the country’s economy. They are essential to the United States’ economic recovery but feel abandoned by lawmakers.

As Motherly reported last week, the U.S. stands to lose 40% of its childcare centers without government funding. This will have a devastating impact on American families, as even more working mothers will be forced out of the workforce, but the looming closure of childcare centers and day homes will be felt disproportionately by BIPOC women who will lose their small businesses or jobs.

That’s because, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 60% of businesses in the childcare industry are minority-owned. Childcare has the third-largest share of minority business owners of all industries, with only home health care services and taxi/limo services seeing a greater share of minority owners.

And according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, 40% of workers in childcare centers and home-based day cares identify as people of color, and almost 50% of unlisted, home-based childcare providers are people of color. The Center notes that “nationally, African American early educators are disproportionately represented among the [early childhood education] workforce who teach infants and/or toddlers.”

Historically, these workers are vastly underpaid and under appreciated. As Motherly reported last year, on average, America’s childcare workers make less than Amazon delivery drivers.

Keesha M. Middlemass, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University. She says it is time for America to recognize the racism that’s inherent in the country’s childcare system.

“We all uplift mothers, but we don’t uplift the largely Black and Brown women that take care of children,” she explains to Motherly. “When you start thinking about who takes care of children before they’re in school full time, it really tends to be women of color. They are underpaid and don’t have any real support in the legislative branch of government that could actually improve funding and improve pay.”

Why do we expect Black and Brown women to do this work for so little?

As Middlemass points out, childcare in the United States is prohibitively expensive for many lower-income families, but the high costs of preschool care doesn’t translate into high wages for the women doing the care work. They’re incredibly underpaid in most cases, an injustice that echos the legacy of slavery in the United States.

Middlemass explains that the lack of investment to support childcare workers is rooted in our biases about “who society thinks should be in the caregiving role,” pointing out that American history has perpetuated “that image of the mammy, where Black women aren’t even allowed to mother their own children, but are expected to mother white children.”

A legacy of racism, bias and barriers continues in the childcare industry

From there, Middlemass says, a lack of access to education and entrance to higher-paying industries sees “Black women, particularly, but also Latinas, funneled into particular types of jobs around caregiving.”

Consider how in the K-12 school system about 80% of teachers are white, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Barriers to higher education keep Black, Latinx and immigrant workers out of the elementary and high school teaching pool, and push them into the even lower paying industry of early childhood education, which is incorrectly perceived as lower skilled work.

And even in the industry, systemic racism can keep women of color from occupying the highest paying roles. Women of color working in childcare centers are more likely to work as aides or assistants to white women, as the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment noted in 2019. In New York, Black workers are overrepresented in aide and assistant roles compared to white workers, and in California, Latina workers are more likely to be aides and assistants compared white peers, who are more likely to be in teaching roles.

The United States needs to invest in its caregivers—now

As so many economists have stated in recent weeks, there will be no economic recovery for the United States without support for the childcare sector. And because BIPOC women are so overrepresented in the childcare industry, there simply cannot be an economic recovery for the United States without an investment in BIPOC early childhood educators.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has not benefited 50% of minority-owned childcare businesses, a new survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows. Only 12% of minority-owned childcare businesses have not had to lay off or furlough staff, compared to 27% of the industry overall.

Middlemass is calling for grants for families to pay for care, as well as grants for childcare business owners and grants for workforce development. She also believes, like many early childhood education advocates, that childcare should be part of the K-12 education system.

Childcare should be expensive, Middlemass explains, because we are asking for small class sizes, increasingly credentialed workers and quality caregiving and we need to pay people fairly to provide that…but right now the U.S. childcare system is being subsidized by the BIPOC women who keep the rest of us working.

And that is an injustice the country must address.