A child’s first lesson in preschool is how to share: too many kids with not enough toys, markers, or teachers to go around. Unfortunately, that sharing doesn’t always end up being fair, and that inequitable distribution of learning resources also plays out on the much bigger scale of early education as a whole.

A recent Department of Health and Human Services analysis uncovers that, while the childcare and preschool workforce has become increasingly professionalized over the years—most educators in center-based programs now hold college degrees—they still generally earn less than a living wage. This systematic under-investment has real consequences for underprivileged children, who grow up without a firm developmental foundation: “Children who attend high-quality preschool are less likely to be retained in their grade, are more likely to graduate from high school, go on to college, and be employed than those who have not attended high-quality preschool programs.”

According to new research by The Century Foundation (TCF), childcare workers averaged about $10.70 an hour last year; that’s maybe less than the price of a kid’s fast-food lunch, or less than a fast-food worker’s hourly pay. Compared with gold-plated private daycare programs enjoyed by the privileged, preschool for the poor is a zero-sum game of trying to “enrich” young minds through impoverished programs.

One recently certified preschool educator in California wrote to federal education authorities:

I have been offered $10.02 up to $10.20 per hour. I am faced with the stress of trying to pay back my student loans and take care of my family. I just hope someday that our profession will be taken seriously and paid to reflect the service that we give.

Though Pre-Kindergarten is not provided universally across districts, many programs are receiving more government funding and acquiring more rigorous pedagogical standards. Still, “Without a baseline of a living wage and appropriate compensation for the additional years of education,” TCF concludes, “such requirements may actually act as a deterrent to entering and staying in the field.”

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California–Berkeley, even at so-called five-star rated programs, nearly 40 percent of teachers surveyed worried about not having adequate food.

But with decent pay levels, on par with other K-12 teachers, programs might see reduced turnover, experts say, and in turn provide more stable, nurturing programming for young minds.

Florida Headstart teacher LiAnne Flakes says she has battled with homelessness and poverty throughout her career. Now, earning $12.50 an hour at 40 years old, she has no health insurance, shares housing with roommates, and sees grocery shopping as a “luxury.”

While some colleagues have left the field, Flakes, who has no children, devotes some of her personal budget to students. (“That’s a lot of spending at the Dollar Tree.”) Her low-income students’ families (representing most of the state’s children), often aren’t eligible for public assistance, she says, and often, they’re “having to decide from week to week, which bill [they are] going to pay, and a lot of times, it is the childcare that’s last.”

TCF notes that working conditions can be a hugely positive or negative influence on a teacher’s performance as well as a child’s learning experience: “Just as economic instability can cause stress, depression, and distraction, economic stability is an important factor in enabling employees to show up to work energized, engaged, and present.”

The treatment of these educators reflects racial disparities. Early childhood teachers are “disproportionately women of color, compared to other parts of the workforce and the broader education industry,” according to TCF. Yet diversity could be invested in as an asset. Toddlers experiencing a new out-of-home setting may feel more comfortable with teachers who share their linguistic or cultural background. Research on educational diversity in K-12 settings “shows that teachers of color are more likely to hold high expectations for students of color.”

Educational racial inequality shades into negative social outcomes, even at the preschool level. This includes not just lack of access to quality programs, but disparate treatment within programs. For example, according to government data, “Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to be suspended as are white preschool students.” In 2014, the government issued a policy guidance warning that the trend of unequal punishment seemed to track students across grade levels, and could be due to “discriminatory discipline practices, school racial climates, and under-resourced, inadequate education and training for teachers.”

TCF researcher Halley Potter says in a follow-up e-mail: “Even in otherwise high-quality programs, children of color may experience differential treatment as a result of implicit bias or lack of support services.” The issue requires more extensive training to “address racial bias in the classroom and provide the funding for counselors, social workers, and psychologists.”

The social dynamics of a preschool classroom mirror the injustices of the surrounding community, but it can also be a laboratory for solutions.

When she was growing up, Flakes recalls, working-class families like hers made do with letting relatives watch kids while parents worked—a free, but not ideal solution. It’s one she wants to replace with a more community-centered care infrastructure, starting with a $15 hourly minimum wage for her and the families she serves.

“Not that grandma, or auntie or uncle can’t teach them,” she says, “but there’s so many things that they are lacking and they are missing like team-building skills, they’re missing socialization skills.”

Each day, Flakes arrives at her classroom to help close the class divide she experienced as a child and now experiences as a worker. She’s learned how to face a room filled with 24 2-year-olds alone. As she waits for other staff to arrive, she says, “I can’t just lose it…. As a teacher I want to make sure that the same quality of care is across the board for everyone. I don’t treat any child any different whether you’re poor or you’re rich.”