For nearly a decade, Dana Hepper, a former school teacher turned policy director at the Children’s Institute, has walked the state Capitol hallways in Salem trying to explain the failure of our current system of child care: one that hurts both parents and providers.
Not long ago she would have explained what child-care desert meant — a county with more than three children for every available slot — and had to convince lawmakers childcare issues were worthy of their time. Now, she enters legislators’ offices, and they tell her, “Did you know we are in a child-care desert?’”
This Oregon legislative session feels different from previous ones when it comes to kids. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the long-standing issues Hepper tried to call attention to for decades. A younger, more diverse cohort of lawmakers, many of them parents, understand the child care gap in a more personal way. The business community also seems to have a greater understanding of how integral quality child care is to the economy.
That’s the message Republican Sen. Dick Anderson has been trying to send to his counterparts this session. Anderson is sponsoring a bill to make it easier to open what’s known as micro-centers — child-care facilities that are larger than an in-home experience but smaller than a center; an example might be one room dedicated to child care in a health clinic.
Anderson said his message to skeptical lawmakers is simple: “This is an economic workforce development issue.” If parents can’t find child care, they can’t work.
For some legislators, that understanding represents a recent shift in thinking. In 2021, for example, a bill to allow people to operate day cares out of rental homes didn’t have enough votes to pass. This session, Senate Bill 599, sailed through the Senate with strong bipartisan support.
Most parents with young children have similar stories when it comes to finding coverage in Oregon: the waitlists are long, the cost is painfully high, and staff turnover is constant.
Amy Powers lives in Washington County, and her kids are 6 and 16. In the decade that spanned their births, she said, not much changed.
“It was really difficult to find someone or a center that was affordable and had high-quality care,” Powers said. Despite working full time, she reached the point of asking, “Am I going to pay rent, or am I going to pay child care?”
When she did find a place that she loved, she had to explain to her youngest child why all the teachers kept leaving.
Child care can cost upwards of $1,900 a month, but those actually providing the child care are often barely making minimum wage with no medical benefits.
“They are caring for our most precious and amazing children, and we’re not paying them a living wage,” Powers said. “And that’s absurd.”
Parents pay a lot for care. Workers don’t make a living wage. It seems like the math would then add up to providers raking in the money. But that’s not the case either.
There are ratio requirements for each age group, so a certain number of staff must be present at all times. There are a slew of other regulations that make it hard for providers to make it pencil as well, such as square footage requirements that drives up rent and reduces facility options. In the end, many providers are operating with thin margins as well.
That’s the tricky economics of day care.
Staff and buildings
The child-care crisis in Oregon was decades in the making. As Hepper likes to point out, it won’t be fixed in one legislative session.
But this session, lawmakers are hoping to make a dent in at least two problem areas that could start to make a difference.
First, they want to address some of the workforce shortage issues. House Bill 2991 would require the Department of Early Learning and Care to commission a study looking at any barriers to improving the quality of the early childhood workforce. House Bill 3029 would create a “child care incentive fund” that could be used to help child care workers pay off student loans or to pay for their own child care while they are studying to become a provider. And House Bill 2504 would make it easier for people who have been trained internationally to care for children work in the United States.
Democrat Rep. Lisa Reynolds, chair of the House Committee on Early Childhood and Human Services, is also a pediatrician. She believes if the state invested as much in children 5 and younger as it does in school-aged children, the costs would pay off later for everyone. Literacy rates would improve, she said, and the number of young people in the criminal justice system would drop.
Overall, scientific studies have shown societal benefits from investing in children from the moment they are born and the level of care matters, Reynolds said. So even people who don’t have children should care about the issue.
“We need the workforce, right?” Reynolds said. “As someone who as a pediatrician really understands about the baby brains and the first five years of life, we want these to be nurturing places for learning and curiosity.”
Reynolds said recruiting people to a profession “where you can’t get paid as much as you might get paid even at Starbucks” is difficult.
Compared to other developed countries, the United States offers some of the lowest levels of financial support for child care. In many richer countries, families can receive paid leave up through a child’s first year, making the difficulty of finding care for a child’s first year of life a uniquely American problem.
The other area of focus lawmakers are honing in on this session is making investments in the actual physical infrastructure that is available. House Bill 2727 would require certain local governments to review zoning, land use and building code requirements and recommend changes to allow more child care programs to survive.
Finally, there is the state budget.
Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek has called on lawmakers to raise rates paid to child care providers through the state’s Employment Related Day Care program that helps low-income parents.
Her budget proposes spending $1.395 billion for the Department of Early Learning and Care. Kotek’s recommended budget includes a $62.5 million increase for early learning programs and $43.1 million to increase rates for providers who accept Employment Related Daycare. But because of the loss of federal one-time general funds, Kotek’s budget actually represents a 4% decrease.
And at the end of the day, it’s going to take money to make the system better. Lawmakers know what a child care desert is now; the next question is what will they do about it.