More than a third of D.C.’s child-care workers live in poverty. New city-funded bonuses are part of an innovative plan to raise their pay.
Marshall scrolled through the chat. City officials had said providers could spend the money however they wanted, but as far as Marshall could see, no one planned to use it on anything fun. Child-care workers have long been among the nation’s lowest-paid laborers, and many of her colleagues said the money couldn’t come fast enough. They had pandemic-era debts to pay down, and health problems to address.
“One of them wants to pay for her grandmother’s tombstone,” Marshall said. “She’s been without a headstone for two years.”
Marshall had run Ms. P’s Child and Family Services out of her Northwest Washington home for more than two decades. She’d survived because she worked half a dozen side hustles. She taught CPR and notarized documents, and on the weekends, she worked shifts at a hospital.
“Chanel,” Marshall said, nodding at one of her lead teachers, Chanel Lindsay. “What would you use the pay supplement on?”
“I want to get my root canal done,” Lindsay said.
A dentist had told Lindsay a year and a half earlier that she needed a root canal and a crown, but Lindsay hadn’t managed to save enough to cover the $2,000 bill. She earned just $550 a week helping Marshall watch seven toddlers, so she had delayed the procedure and lived in pain.
“Maureen needs a root canal, too,” Marshall said, motioning toward one of her assistant teachers.
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Marshall had her own medical bills. She learned in June that she had breast cancer, and the diagnosis had led to a cascade of new expenses. She had to pay for chemotherapy, and she had to hire additional staff to watch the children when she was too weak to do so.
She had regular expenses, too — $30,000 left on her mortgage, $10,000 on the windows she’d installed during the pandemic to increase airflow for the children — but when Marshall’s money came, she planned to spend it on her workers.
She knew they deserved more than the $15 an hour she paid them. Already, her staff had told her they might have to leave for better-paying jobs at Chick-fil-A or the school district. Marshall planned to boost them to $16 in January, and the minimum wage is set to go up to $17 by next July, but her profit margins were so thin, she feared any raise might break her. She’d applied for the pay supplement the day the city began accepting applications, but by late October, as she scrolled through her phone, Marshall was still waiting.
“Just give me some time,” Marshall told Lindsay. “Matter of fact, let me check the status of my application now.”
‘I felt like I wasn’t making any money’
Marshall only became a child-care worker because she couldn’t find anyone to watch her middle daughter, Tanisha. Tanisha has cerebral palsy, and by the time she was 4, she’d gone through seven babysitters and endured dog bites, serious falls and burns while in their care. Marshall briefly found a nursery that specialized in helping children like Tanisha, but it closed because of budget cuts in the mid-1990s, and eventually, Marshall decided to open a center in her living room.
Marshall worked as a secretary for the Defense Department then, and she wasn’t sure if the child-care business would earn enough to sustain her family, so she kept her day job and enlisted her mother, Patsy, to help. In the evenings, Marshall went back to school to finish degrees in early-childhood education, business management and human development.
Marshall has always served low-income families, and back then, her take-home pay was especially low. The federal government gives low-income families vouchers to pay for child care, but those vouchers are often worth less than the rates providers need to charge to pay their staff and break even.
In 2015, the District became the first in the nation to set its voucher rate on the actual cost of caring for a young child. Washington now has a higher monthly reimbursement than any state. Family child-care providers like Marshall went from earning between $30 and $40 a day per child a decade ago to between $65 and $80 now.
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Still, those increased rates didn’t mean child-care workers earned a living wage, and in 2018, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signed the Birth-to-Three for All DC Amendment Act, an ambitious plan that pledged to pay child-care workers a wage commensurate to the ones public school teachers earn. Years went by, though, and the city council never fully funded the legislation.
Marshall joined the advocacy group SPACEs in Action to lobby for full funding. She wrote editorials and met with city council members to share her story, but the past few years have been especially tough. Her income dwindled as parents lost their jobs during the early days of the pandemic, and she had to spend more on masks, cleaning supplies and the new windows.
“The bills went up so high,” Marshall said, “I felt like I wasn’t making any money.”
In 2021, Marshall’s mother died, and Marshall had to hire new teachers to take her mother’s place. The whole operation was starting to seem precarious, but then, in February, the D.C. Council voted to redirect $53.9 million in tax dollars gleaned from the city’s richest residents to create the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund.
Eventually, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will award providers the money to increase their staffs’ regular salaries, but rolling out that complex program will take time, so officials decided to hand out bonuses in the meantime.
Marshall couldn’t wait for her staff to receive their checks. More than a third of the city’s child-care workers live in poverty, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and Marshall hated that her employees were among them. She helped them find fellowships and other cash incentives, and she encouraged them to pursue greater credentials so they could eventually qualify for higher wages. She wasn’t sure yet how she’d pay them more once they earned degrees, but that day in October, as the children slept and she scrolled through WhatsApp, three of her four employees were taking online classes to further their educations.
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The other, Gabriel Greene, was in the kitchen cooking snacks and fielding calls from her kids’ teachers. Three of her four children had disabilities, and school officials often called to complain that one had acted out. Greene had taken the job at Ms. P’s because Marshall offered her more flexibility than her previous gig as a security officer had, but Greene wasn’t sure she could stay. Her partner worked two jobs, and she drove UberEats on the weekend, but they struggled to cover their expenses.
As Marshall searched through her phone for an email about Lindsay’s supplement application, Greene returned to the living room with a sigh. Her oldest son’s teacher had called to say he urinated on himself and needed to go home. Greene desperately wanted to help him, and she hoped the looming bonus would give her that chance.
“When I get my money,” Greene told Marshall, “I’m getting therapy for my child.”
Two days later, Marshall loaded her 2010 Honda Odyssey with gas and drove the children and her workers to a pumpkin patch in Virginia. The van had 180,000 miles on it, and it chugged a bit as they eased onto the highway.
Marshall had logged most of those miles taking kids on field trips. The outings ate into her budget, but she’d found in 20 years of teaching young children that kids with disabilities needed more than story time to learn.
“So you know, we’ve been reading a book about pigs, and they’ll get to physically see them and take a picture with them today,” she told her staff as she drove. “It means so much more to them because of the relationship they are building.”
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The pumpkin patch was an hour away, and eventually the kids fell asleep in their car seats and Greene checked Instagram on her phone. Someone had posted a video of a group of teenagers beating a woman on the W4 Metrobus as it wound through Southeast Washington.
“That’s my bus,” Greene said. “I live on that side. It’s terrible on that side. It’s off the hook on that side. That’s why I don’t let my son ride that bus.”
Though Ms. P’s was in Ward 2, nearly all of Marshall’s clients lived in Southeast Washington and worked downtown. She knew her families spent most of their time in impoverished neighborhoods where violence was more prevalent and educational outcomes were lower than citywide averages, but she believed, and studies confirmed, that the work she did with children would head off problems before they began.
Researchers have found that young children who live in underserved communities but receive high-quality early education are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. They post higher lifetime earnings, and they’re less likely to be convicted of a crime.
Marshall pulled off the highway and into a dusty parking lot in the Virginia countryside.
“We’re here,” she said.
‘You want the American Dream … you need child care’
The pumpkin patch was packed with school groups wearing matching T-shirts. Marshall knew neither her staff nor her clients could afford an extra outing, so she paid for everyone’s tickets. The bill came to $135.
They started with a tour of the livestock. Bethel, a 2-year-old with dark eyes and a blue puffy coat, waddled up to the ducks and shrieked in delight.
“What sound does the duck make?” Marshall asked him.
“Duck make!” he parroted.
“No, no, what sound does the duck make?” she asked. He wrinkled his forehead, and his big eyes went wider.
“Quack!” he said, then dissolved into a fit of giggles.
Bethel bound ahead toward the rabbit pen, and Marshall took a deep breath. She was a week out from her latest round of chemotherapy, and she felt depleted. She leaned against the fence as Bethel marveled at 11 piglets fighting for a turn to nurse, and she walked a few steps behind everyone as they made their way to a sandbox filled with corn kernels. When the kids pointed to a gigantic slide, Marshall asked Greene and Lindsay to take them, then she settled on a nearby picnic bench to regain her strength.
While she waited, she checked her phone. One of the kids’ parents had written to say they couldn’t afford diapers for the next week and a half, and they wondered if Marshall would give them some. She didn’t have the money to spare, but she texted to say she’d send the child home with a package that night.
She looked again through her email, but she didn’t see any news about the supplement. Only one of her employees, her daughter Takia, had been approved. Everyone else’s application had been rejected. Marshall had applied using her married name, when her business was registered to her maiden name, and Lindsay had been hired two days too late to qualify for the first round.
Marshall had submitted appeals, but another three weeks would pass before the city sent her the first bonus, a check worth $14,000. For now, she told herself to be patient.
As of late December, D.C. officials had approved roughly 75 percent of the 4,200 applications it received for the first round, a sum that totaled nearly $38 million, but a small number of cases, including Lindsay’s, remain under appeal. The city expects to send out three rounds of checks in 2023, and in January, the District will offer free health insurance to all child-care workers. That alone would save Marshall money. She’d applied for Medicaid, and she’d won some relief from a hospital foundation, but mostly she covered her cancer treatments and her insulin prescriptions herself.
“Next year’s going to be easier,” Marshall told herself.
Marshall and her crew spent three hours at the patch, then around lunchtime, they headed out, clutching pumpkins to take home. As Marshall drove them home, Greene’s phone rang, and when she answered, her oldest son’s teacher said he was misbehaving.
“What’s going on with you today?” Greene asked when he came to the phone. “Your TV is about to be gone because I can’t take this.”
Marshall waved her hand to get Greene’s attention.
“Don’t tell him anything negative is going to happen,” Marshall said. “If you tell him you’re going to take stuff from him, he’s just going to keep acting out. The result isn’t going to be positive. Just tell him to please calm down, have a good day at school, and y’all can discuss it at home.”
Greene took Marshall’s advice, but when she hung up, she said she wasn’t sure what to do. Her kids’ father worked seven days a week, and that schedule didn’t leave him much time to attend the children’s football games or anything else. She knew they wanted more from him, but he couldn’t cut back on his hours.
“You need to tell him to get to at least one,” Marshall said. “Otherwise, your son’s gonna remember that for the rest of his life.”
By then, they were in Alexandria, just 20 minutes from Ms. P’s, but the distance seemed meaningful to Greene. She stared out the window as Marshall drove past clean parks and idyllic brick homes.
“These are some nice houses here,” Greene said. “I would love to live out here.”
Even with the bonus, Greene knew, that might never happen. She went quiet, and eventually Marshall propped her phone against the dashboard and joined a live stream for the family child-care nonprofit Homegrown. Providers across the country had told her they were envious of what D.C. was doing to increase providers’ wages. When it was Marshall’s turn to speak, someone asked how D.C. workers had persuaded the city to make such a huge investment.
“You have to remember, our city councilors have children,” Marshall told them. “The mayor adopted a baby. So they understand if you want the American Dream, the picket fence, the good job, you need child care. That’s us. We ignite the economy so you can have that good life.”