Think Out Loud

Oregon ‘child-care deserts’ still prevalent

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 8, 2021 5:15 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, June 8

An Oregon State University report shows that even before the pandemic, all Oregon counties were considered “child-care deserts,” meaning they lacked adequate child care for infants and toddlers. And in many counties, parents of preschool-aged children also lacked childcare options. Megan Pratt is an assistant professor of practice in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and the lead author of the report. Alyssa Chatterjee is the acting early learning system director of the Oregon Department of Education’s Early Learning Division. It funded the report. They join us with details on what the findings mean for Oregon families.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer

Dave Miller: Oregon has a child care shortage. This is not news. It’s been true for years now. But recent data from the state confirms the extent of the shortage pre pandemic. As of March 1st, 2020, every county in the state was considered a desert for toddlers. For older kids, meaning ages 3 to 5,  the situation was a little better and then came the pandemic which made everything worse. According to a state survey, closures and limitations meant that more than half of Oregon families who rely on childcare providers experienced some kind of interruption during the last year.

Joining me is Megan Pratt, Assistant Professor of Practice at Oregon State University and the lead author of this new report about child care deserts and Alyssa Chatterjee, Oregon’s acting Early Learning System director.

Miller: I mentioned this phrase, child care desert. Can you remind us what that actually means?

Megan Pratt: Child care desert is a term that’s been used in Oregon as well as across the US. It is a region where there are more than three children for every single child care space or slot in a program. This includes both family child care homes and centers.

Miller: What’s significant about the 3 to 1 ratio?

Pratt: There’s this need to allow for the fact that not all children need or their families want their child in child care. It’s not a 1 to 1. This definition allows for that flexibility of parent choice and around the fact that especially with our infants and toddlers,

there’s a lot of ways to make that work. That’s a big driver of why it’s not a 1 to 1 kind of definition.

Miller: These numbers are about regulated child care slots of various kinds. Do you have any way of knowing how many children are outside of the system and officially recognized by the state, but are nevertheless getting some kind of more or less organized care?

Pratt: We know that ⅔ of households with children have parents who are working full time. The license care supply is limited, thus families are finding different people to fill in those gaps and are looking outside of what’s included in the study of licensed and regulated care.

Miller: A voice mail message….

I live in Monmouth, Oregon. I have a 3 year old and a 6 month old and it has been virtually impossible to find infant care. There are no accredited centers that cater to infants in my area and any home-based care that is accepting infants are full.

I was a chief executive officer and the chief operating officer and to have to step away from the workforce has been devastating for me personally, emotionally, financially and otherwise.

Miller: Megan’s new report found that every Oregon county was a child care desert for kids ages 0 to 2. It was a little bit better for ages 3 to 5. How do you account for that difference in the difficulty of younger kids?

Pratt:  For the workforce and the providers of care, higher staffing levels are needed for infants and toddlers and public funding has focused on the 3-5 year old age group.  Now there’s a growing investment and attention to the 0-3 age group.

Miller: What was your biggest takeaway from this latest report?

Alyssa Chatterjee: I think an important take-away that may be a silver lining is that we know that the public investments we are making in child care and early learning are working. They are growing our supply, they are increasing access for families.

There’s some hopefulness from this and we know that these strategies that the

State has chosen to invest in are working.  Now we need to really scale them up and make sure that more and more families can get access to these services.

Miller: This was the second report of its kind and the data for this one went up to March 1st, 2020.  The picture changed from 2018 to 2020..what did change over the course of those two years?

Pratt: There was an increase in the number of public slots and an increase in supply. It was modest, but it was going in the right direction. Overall the supply has stayed relatively stable in terms of how many children are able to be served. Where we are seeing growth is primarily in center settings as well as larger home-based family settings. These are settings where they are run out of the home.

However, they often are big enough to serve enough children so that they have staff. We are continuing to see a decline in our smaller family care settings, which are usually one person, often one woman and one woman of color, compared to the other types of care.

Miller: By far the biggest change in child care supply was the enormous decrease in what Megan Pratt was describing ...small family child care homes. They’ve gone from about 45,000 slots being able to serve that many kids to about 1500. Any of the increases in larger center care or larger home based care haven’t made up for that drop. How do you explain that huge drop over two decades?

Pratt: There’s a lot of factors. For small, home-based providers, child care is not a lucrative business and for families, women, and women of color, the wages are not what they deserve.  It’s very difficult to run a business on very thin margins and things much smaller than a pandemic can impact the viability of maintaining those businesses.


Recognizing that as the cost of living has gone up and as rent goes up,  it becomes increasingly difficult to run these types of programs, particularly from the home when you’re only serving a smaller number of children. When looking at wages, we have to look at strategies such as our publicly funded programs that build in that wage parody. Also, that recognizes and compensates these providers for their expertise and professionalism that is equal to what we would compensate their K 12 peers.

Miller: Is it possible that one of the challenges for these smaller providers are various kinds of state mandates about safety or whatever, that could increase the operating costs for these small centers?

Chatterjee: It could be a factor. This is such a complex business and it’s nuanced in that it is neither lucrative for providers and also incredibly expensive for families.

Miller: That’s what I was wondering, How do you account for both of those at once? In some cases it may be too expensive for families or too expensive if they’re not getting subsidies. At the same time, the people who are running them are barely getting by or can’t even make it work. What’s happening?

Chatterjee: This is a reality that a lot of economists have looked at and it’s difficult. A great example is if you’re a provider in Coos County and you are caring for two infants, you might be charging $1000 per infant, which would be a lot for a family to cover. At the same time, that means you’re only making $2000 a month to cover your expenses to keep the facility clean, and perhaps providing diapers and formula.You also have to make sure you have developmentally appropriate activities and ways to keep the child stimulated. It’s difficult to pay your rent and run your business with $2000. It’s also an extraordinary burden for families to cover. I think that’s why we’re seeing, at both a national and state level, an effort to cap what their copays would be. House Bill 3073 addresses this issue. We know that the best practice is 7% of a family’s income to contribute towards childcare.

We  know that families are paying a lot more than that. Lots of states and the federal government have continued to move towards quality which is linked to training requirements as well as to health and safety requirements.


Miller: Let’s listen to another voicemail.

I am from Portland, Oregon. Finding child care is impossible. I can’t even fathom saying yes to taking a job because I don’t have a paycheck yet to pay for child care. And when I looked at the community centers, they’re all full. I’m really unsure about what to do.

Miller: We have heard these same stories before. They tied the lack of childcare to the lack of everybody to take a job outside the home. What are the societal repercussions for this shortage?

Chatterjee: The pandemic has really highlighted that child care is an essential infrastructure to our economy. We really have to be making investments. We have seen investments in preschool age programming and we need to start paying attention to those infant/toddler investments and expanding that access as well. If we don’t make these significant investments in expanding access to care, we’re going to feel the repercussions for years to come and we know that it’s disproportionately impacting women.

Miller: With some exceptions, the child care supply in Oregon is worse in rural areas than in urban ones. Looking at the maps in your report, how do you explain that?

Pratt: It’s  really important to recognize that supply is not equally distributed across the state. There’s a lot of challenges, particularly in our more rural counties, to maintain child care as the child population ebbs and flows.The same kind of investment that you need to make to not having enough supply in Ontario, Oregon, is going to look very different than in Portland. In rural areas, the economic realities, the family realities and the sheer number of children isn’t there. There isn’t the market there for families to make choices and for providers to stay afloat and stay viable.

Caller: I’m a father of 3 and 5 year olds. I have watched our daycare and preschool center really struggle during Covid in terms of their ratios and the rules. I am curious about what the plans are for moving forward with our preschools and daycares relaxing so they can actually have more kids.

Miller: With the rules going forward, especially looking at the Fall, although perhaps for summer sessions too, with regard to masking and social distance and cohort numbers,  do you have a sense for what it’s going to look like?

Chatterjee: Throughout the pandemic, the Early Learning Division has been working closely with the Oregon Health Authority as we learn more about the virus. We need to understand what does Summer and Fall look like. Where can we make adjustments, particularly for our early learning programs, our birth to 5 programs. This population of children are not going to have access to the vaccine for a while, whether families choose to utilize those vaccines or not.

Caller: Didn’t we pass child care for all this? Wasn’t this actually a Multnomah County specific ballot measure that did pass?

Miller: Can you remind us what the timeline of that is and how a program like that could fit into what we’re talking about?

Chatterjee: Yes, this was something in Multnomah County as opposed to statewide. It’s phased in over several years, based on subsidizing the cost of preschool programs, in particular those 3 to 5 year old programs, for all families who would like to participate in the program. This is an exciting opportunity to see how local programs,  like Preschool For All, can fit alongside state level investments in programs like Preschool Promise or programs like Head Start, which currently have income requirements alongside them. The needs of Multnomah County and the infrastructure of Multnomah County looks very different than it might look in other counties. We’ve got a lot of learning and collaboration underway with the county to understand how this will work alongside state investments as well.

Caller: Children with disabilities is an issue I’m concerned about. I’ve had a difficult time finding him appropriate childcare. There’s something called the PSW,  one on one, available through Developmental Disability Services. I know from speaking with other families that it’s incredibly hard to find a PSW due to the pandemic. PSWs are usually mothers, and usually women of color and they’re just not available in the pandemic.

Miller: What’s your response to the specific concern about a lack of options for children with disabilities?

Chatterjee: It’s important that we can’t talk about universal access without recognizing the needs of children regardless of ability, race, ethnicity, culture, and creating inclusive programs for all needs of all children. We know that we don’t actually have the supply to meet the needs of those children. We are working through legislation. House Bill 2166 would establish an early childhood suspension and expulsion prevention program. This would be investing in resources to help child care providers and families connect to the referral services they might need, or more likely receive some technical assistance training and support to make sure that providers have the tools and resources they need to best meet the needs of children. I’m including children with disabilities so that the child can be safe and the provider can feel supported in that work. It’s a system investment that we need to see expanded so that we are growing the supply of inclusive settings for all children.

Caller: I really appreciate this conversation because this has been a significant problem for my family. We have a 3 year old and a 5 year old and one on the way. My husband and I both have graduate degrees. But I can’t make enough per hour to cover the cost to work. It’s been devastating. I think this is where the conversation obviously flows into how this disproportionately affects women. I have studied and practiced in social services, doing essential, important work with vulnerable young people all over the world. Unfortunately, my career has been so stunted and until all my children are in school full time, I don’t stand a chance of even being able to afford to work. Until there are state and federal programs that significantly subsidize child care before elementary school starts, we don’t really have a fighting chance. As a woman who wanted to have a solid career and got her education, it’s been a huge heartbreak for me.

Miller: Alyssa, you had said that the pandemic has laid bare the baseline necessity of child care and how it’s a critical part of social infrastructure. I’m curious if you see evidence that lawmakers, people who actually are in control of the purse strings, if they actually have gotten that religion. Do you see a real change in the people who are directly making policy or if this just something that you see as true but is not reflected in policy.

Chatterjee: Absolutely. We are seeing it at the Federal level. The American Rescue Plan Act included significant investments in getting direct funds out to child care providers  and we’re currently working on that. Looking at some of the American Families plan, American Jobs plan, child care is a core component and I do think that has made its way to Oregon as well. In the last year, we’ve  talked to more legislators, on a bipartisan level, about the child care desert that their communities are experiencing, making sure that providers receive the resources and funding that we can offer to keep them afloat through the pandemic. This is a different kind of conversation than we’ve had in the past and we are talking to a lot more legislators and we’re getting a lot more interest. We’ve seen the creation of the House Early Childhood Committee in the legislature, which is critical to helping more legislators understand the complexities of a primarily privately funded system. House Bill 3073 is a piece of that bipartisan legislation that’s really targeting investments and infrastructure changes in how the State handles child care moving forward.

Miller:, if I understand correctly, one of the things it would do is elevate what’s currently the Early Learning Division and turn it into its own agency.

Megan,  as we mentioned before, your most recent study went up to a very key date in global history. It was March 1st, 2020, and the pandemic really hit just in the week that followed. What have you learned over the last 14 or 15 months about childcare and preschool providers and slots? How did the pandemic affect it?

Pratt: The pandemic really threw things off and  illustrated the need for coordination of this fragmented system of child care because it’s been pieced together in all these different ways.. Providers are saying they are willing to be open, but don’t have any children who are coming in the door to stay in the program. Do they have to close? The other question is, with all these school age children, how does one’s program meet their needs and the needs of their siblings who need care too.These conversations have highlighted the importance of the solutions being tailored to communities, hearing what needs to happen and being responsive to that. A lot of the legislation and other efforts are ongoing, but it is a challenging problem.

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