Many neighborhoods across New Bedford are now considered “child care deserts,” a term coined by researchers at the Center for American Progress (CAP) that means there are more than three times as many children as there are slots for child care.

At the YWCA on New Bedford’s School Street, there are only five employees at the day care program. Because several job openings remain unfilled, Phoebe Marshall, 27, often gets pulled into leading classroom activities or riding along on extra bus duty — though her actual job as a mental health clinician is to support students through their various “emotional crises.”

“It’s hard if another kid needs me,” Marshall said about having to fill multiple roles, but she doesn’t have much choice. 

A major challenge within the national child care shortage has been attracting people to work these jobs. In Massachusetts, the median hourly wage was $14.11 for early educators before the pandemic, according to a legislative report released this year

That led to a 15% poverty rate among early educators in Massachusetts — or those who already have a job caring for children ages 0-12 — which is higher than for workers in general (about 9%) and for public school teachers (about 2%).

But at the YWCA, when the kids stream off the bus at five minutes before 3 p.m., everyone puts on a smile. 

“The craziness starts,” Marshall says, and she takes a deep breath and opens the door. As the kids burst in, Marshall greets them all by name, helps them get a snack (tortilla chips, an apple, hummus), and directs them into their classrooms, which are coordinated around a color theme. 

Due to low pay, 15% of child care workers fall below the poverty line. This has contributed to many New Bedford neighborhoods becoming “child care deserts.” Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

With 24 students on the roster, the two certified group leaders on staff are just enough for the center to be in compliance with a state law that mandates a 13:1 student-teacher ratio. 

Maureen Coffey, a policy analyst at ​​CAP who has studied child care deserts, says that New Bedford — like the whole country — does not have enough resources to provide child care. 

“We’ve seen overall decreases in the capacity for child care in terms of staff, number of sites, and full sites closing down,” she said. “I don’t see any evidence that New Bedford would have drastically improved the amount of child care available [since the pandemic].”

The initial study on child care deserts was completed in 2018, at which point 53% of Massachusetts residents lived in an area with some shortage.  There was a disparity as low-income people faced more extreme shortages, with 62% living in one of these deserts; and for Latinos, with 59% in a desert. 


Two neighborhoods in New Bedford, the South Peninsula and Near North End, had severe shortages, with some census tracts having no available child care for the hundreds of eligible children there. These neighborhoods are majority Hispanic and low-income, with a median family income below $25,000 in each.

“We know that without child care most people can’t go to their jobs,” Coffey said. So providing higher pay for child care workers would pay dividends across the economy. “It’s going to pay off if we invest in this.” 

At the YWCA, Nanette Ramos is a veteran educator who says it’s hard to bring new faces into the classroom. “You can make more money at a McDonalds or at Domino’s,” she said. 

As her 5- and 6-year-olds settle down into the “yellow room” with a snack, Ramos can be quick with praise: “When I see people helping each other I really like that,” she compliments one girl cleaning up the table.

She’s fast with a lesson, too: “Those are the consequences you get for the choices you make,” she tells one boy who neglected her instructions and was unhappy with his drawing. 

Ramos has been running this classroom after school, during vacations, and over summer break for eight years (by far outlasting the other staff members, who frequently turn over). Previously, she had the same job for 14 years at Little People’s College, and all the while has worked as a paraprofessional at Gomes, Lincoln, and now Campbell Elementary. In addition, she sometimes picks up shifts at a local salon. 

“It’s just what I do. I worked at New Bedford School Department during the day, then I worked at (the salon) at night.” She added, “I’ve worked at Bed Bath and Beyond at night maybe two nights a week.”

Two certified “group leaders” on staff are just enough for the YWCA to be in compliance with a state law that mandates a 13:1 student-teacher ratio. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

“The pay is not there, so there’s a lot of people who have to do that,” Ramos said, insisting that her situation isn’t unique. 

Ramos has one classroom aide, Henry Aj, a junior at New Bedford High School, and she says he has a talent for connecting with the kids. Aj is crouching down working with a group when Ramos has to pull one student over to her desk, and he transitions for a moment into a leading role, giving confident directions and walking around the room to check on some quieter students

“The kids coming say, ‘yo, Mr. Henry you’re a good teacher,’ or ‘you’re so cool,’ and that uplifted me,” Aj said about his relationship with the students. The job was harder than he thought it would be, and the pay was lower.

“The first paycheck I got was shocking, because for the same amount of stress I could have been getting $20 per hour for construction. Maybe my body would have been aching more, but it was kind of a shock.”

“I didn’t realize how difficult it was,” Aj said. “There’s a psychology part of it.” He says this job could help him become a psychologist or a pediatrician in the future. “Even teaching, I honestly never thought I’d even think of becoming a teacher.”

Andrea Davidson is the director of the youth services at the YWCA. There have been some days where even she had to pull bus duty — chaperoning students on their bus ride home — when an employee calls out. 

“At the current rates that we have it’s very challenging to keep a full staff on board and at the same time keep the center at full capacity,” she said. “That’s why we work so hard to get grants to help support the program and the staff.”

Staffing challenges are preventing the center from expanding. When asked how many children were on the waitlist, “I couldn’t even tell you,” Davidson said. “If I were to search today I would probably get 50 kids,” but she said that number comes after filtering by zip code and other eligibility criteria.

Phoebe Marshall works as a mental health clinician, but staff shortages often pull her into other roles, like leading class activities or fulfilling bus duty. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

The teachers here, like Ramos and Aj, say they love the work, despite its challenges.

“The feeling of coming the next day and seeing what I can do with the kids — how I can make their day a little better — is what keeps me coming back,” Aj said. 

And Ramos wants more people to join the profession. “I hope that in the next generation we get more people willing to step up to the plate and give back what they have in their heart and in their mind,’ she said. 

But pay remains the fundamental challenge. A typical child care worker couldn’t afford their own services, as the Economic Policy Institute found they would have to spend more than 75% of their income to afford infant child care, which costs more than public college does in Massachusetts.

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