Patti is the kind of person we all want to take care of our children -- bright, enthusiastic, conscientious, dedicated. But she isn't going to continue this most important work any longer. She can't afford it.
After five years on the job, she earns $5.40 an hour for an eight-hour day of backbreaking, emotionally intense work that begins at 6:30 a.m., ends at 2:30 p.m. -- if she's lucky -- and is so exacting that one false step could result in an injured child -- or worse.
"I love these kids, but I cannot justify working in this field any longer," she said after attending a seminar for child-care providers.
"I work too hard for too little reward; it's as simple as that. We have two children of our own, and my husband got laid off nearly a year ago. We've got to have a real paycheck coming in, and I'm not earning one doing this for a living.
"With a two-year degree in early childhood education, I still earn less than $10,000 a year and get no benefits," she added. "We have no health insurance, plus, if I don't work, I don't get paid.
"So I'm going back to school at night for my four-year degree. Then I'll be a public school teacher," she said, "because I honestly feel as if I have no choice."
This young woman's experience is being duplicated all over the country. Experienced, dedicated, disillusioned child-care providers are leaving the field in record numbers.
The situation is worsening rather than improving. According to an article by Eileen Ogintz in Working Mother magazine, wages of those who remain in the child-care field have actually dropped over the past several years.
The Child Care Employee Project (CCEP) in Oakland, Calif., estimates that nearly half of this country's regulated child-care providers will leave their jobs this year, reports Ms. Ogintz, and no wonder.
Child-care providers earn approximately $220 a week, according the Department of Labor -- less than kitchen workers ($236), hairdressers ($260), waitresses ($222), amusement park workers ($292) or sanitation workers ($308) -- and their real earnings, adjusted for inflation, have declined by nearly one-quarter since the mid-1970s.
What can working parents do about this? Most of us know only what we can't do -- pay more. Working parents already spend an average of between 10 percent and 25 percent of their incomes for this absolutely essential service. We simply can't afford to improve care givers' salaries without help from private industry and our government.
President Clinton's focus on Head Start is a step in the right direction, although it's currently only available to low-income families.
Another step forward is the (slowly) increasing number of companies providing on-site child care or help with off-site expenses. And two bills recently introduced in Congress by Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona offer tax credits or grants to employers who help with child-care costs.
Just as we wouldn't have decent public schools if we had to foot the bill alone, we won't be able to attract and keep qualified child-care providers as long as the responsibility for paying them decent salaries rests on our shoulders alone.
It is, as always, a question of priorities. To let your representatives know your feelings about this issue, contact your senators (U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C., 20510;  224-3121) representatives (U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., 20515;  224-3121).