Megan McMillan has known for a while how important quality child care is, and how difficult it can be to find in the Portland area. The pandemic also taught moms like her how hard it is to go without it.

“After enduring attempts to work from home full-time, with two kids under five, I can tell you with no doubt that child care is the work that makes all other work possible,” McMillan said.

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The growing consensus that child care is a necessary part of a functioning economy — and that Oregon’s patchwork of providers isn’t up to the job — has pressed elected leaders from Salem to Washington, DC to pursue major changes.

Oregon leaders at the state and national level are pushing for major investments and structural changes to child care, pointing to inequities and gaps in support for young children — problems that were made deeper by the year-long pandemic.

At a state level, Oregon legislators have advanced a major overhaul of how the state supervises programs for the state’s youngest children, through the creation of a new early learning agency, with the backing of the Governor’s office and children’s advocacy groups.

At the same time in Congress, Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer are touting plans to make huge investments in ramping up support for child care nationwide. The congressional members said at a press conference Friday outside a Portland child care center that they’re working with the Biden Administration to expand the supply of child care while also increasing the earnings of the historically low-paid provider workforce.

Economics, equity and infrastructure

Advocates and elected officials are presenting the push for child care in terms of equity, economic development and as part of an expanding definition of what “infrastructure” means.

“It matters to families and it also matters to our economy,” Bonamici said. “Child care is infrastructure.”

In economic terms, child care took a beating during the pandemic — but advocates in Oregon and elsewhere say the difficulties of the last year highlighted problems that have affected centers and preschools for years.

“This is an issue that is finally getting the attention it deserves,” Blumenauer said at the Friday press conference.

Child care in Oregon has been in short supply everywhere, with every county categorized as a “child care desert” according to a 2019 analysis by Oregon State University. And that was before the pandemic closed more than half the providers in the state, at least temporarily. The result is that simply child care is difficult to find and even harder to afford.

“The cost of child care for two children under five is almost double what I pay for housing,” parent Megan McMillan said, adding that looking for quality child care she can afford can be a “full-time job on top of my already full-time job.”

Sen. Wyden said Friday that what’s facing Oregon and other parts of the country is a “supply side challenge.”

“We need to increase the supply of child care facilities,” Wyden said. Oregon’s senior senator and now chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee pointed to a $700 billion proposal he’s backing with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, called the University Child Care and Early Learning Act.

The massive spending proposal follows a more modest, but still significant federal investment of $40 billion from the American Rescue Plan. Federal recognition of child care also showed up as $3.5 billion in block grants to child care providers, as part of the CARES Act, passed under the Trump Administration.

At the same time that child care can be in short supply and overly expensive, its employees — teachers, caregivers — tend to be underpaid. Bonamici, who calls herself the only “congressmom” in the delegation, tied the need for living wages in the child care sector to efforts to support communities of color.

“It is also an issue of racial justice,” Bonamici said. “Families of color face income gaps that make quality care even less affordable, and early childhood educators are disproportionately women of color and working so, are often — too often — living in poverty.”

Bonamici called for passing President Biden’s American Families Plan, which the president highlighted in his first address to a joint session of Congress last week. Among the spending provisions of Biden’s $1.8 trillion proposal is a cap on the amount middle and low-income families pay toward child care.

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Oregon proposes new child care agency

At the state level, Oregon officials have learned that funding is only part of the problem. The state’s child care system is a patchwork of private-pay centers, Head Start programs and school-based pre-kindergartens, along with informal networks of nannies, relatives and friends. State management of child care is also a mosaic with different agencies handling regulation and spending.

Oregon HB 3073, aims to consolidate early childhood programs under one roof, called the Department of Early Learning and Care, or DELC. Right now, much of the policy and regulation of programs for preschool-aged kids are within the Early Learning Division, established eight years ago within the Oregon Department of Education. But the state’s largest child care subsidy — the Employment-Related Day Care program — is within the Department of Human Services.

Elected officials say a previous round of significant federal spending, highlighted shortcomings in the current structure and the fledgling Early Learning Division.

In spring 2020, child care centers were struggling to stay afloat as the pandemic wreaked havoc on Oregon’s economy and raised questions about how to care for children safely, and in a way that the businesses could manage financially. Millions of dollars came to Oregon to help child care centers stay open, but providers say the money seemed to be dribbling out, slowly, with too many rules and not enough support and guidance.

“We saw during the pandemic that there was the $70 million that we’d allocated for child care and we had real trouble trying to get that out,” said Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond at a public hearing on HB 3073 in front of the House Rules Committee.

“And we found that the need was really within the department.”

HB 3073 is a lengthy bill, but its main aim is to create the DELC, as a stand-alone agency with its own top administrator reporting directly to the governor.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said the idea of the restructuring is ultimately to affect children and to help families “both recover from the pandemic and thrive.”

“Long-term, [it] will position Oregon and our agency that oversees policy, but currently doesn’t oversee the bulk of funding expenditures, to align these functions so that under one roof we have an agency that both sets policy for the state and spends dollars to effect that policy,” Power told the Rules Committee this week.

The bill passed out of the Rules Committee to Ways and Means, but not without drawing questions from Republican lawmakers.

While Reps. Zika and Power said the bill was necessary to efficiently manage the policy and spending functions of the state’s child care agency, Rep. Christine Drazan questioned the cost of the bureaucratic shuffle.

“This is a massive bill — a creation of basically a brand new agency, and the fiscal impact on this is not insignificant, given that much of the expansion… appears to be ineligible for federal funds,” Drazan said. She had a word for plowing $800 million, counting all funds, into an agency that’s been around less than ten years: “amazing.”

She followed that by saying she was “thrilled it is going to Ways and Means” where the bill will get a more thorough financial analysis.

Rep. Zika said he had similar sticker shock at first but says he felt better when he realized much of the price tag was actually shifting money from multiple places into one.

“We’re not really spending that much money, we’re just moving it,” Zika said.

Further, Zika argued that given the billions the state spends on K-12 and the developmental importance of the early years for a child’s success, it’s money well spent.

Drazan and Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, raised one other point — a principle really. They questioned whether there was an assumption underlying the investments in child care: that elected leaders would rather have children cared for during the day outside the home than by family members.

“We’re subsidizing day care for folks who need it, which I understand, but at the same time, almost signaling that we prefer that method of child care,” Bonham said, going on to recall his own experience being raised by a stay-at-home mom.

Democrats on the Rules Committee had an answer for that concern as well: paid parental leave. Committee chair Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, pointed out that in some parts of the world, paying a parent to stay home to raise children for an extended time is well-established.

“There is that acknowledgment of the importance of that role — I would be thrilled to work on such a concept, because that was a choice I made myself, that I had the luxury of making,” Smith Warner said.

Oregon became the eighth state in the country in 2019 to enact a family leave law, which can be used by new parents. It goes into effect in 2023, and among its allowable uses is for a new parent to stay home with a child — for up to 12 weeks.

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