Oregon has made major changes to its subsidized day care program in recent years. A decade ago, the program was seeing declines. Now? It’s booming.
Starting Nov. 4, the new Oregon Department of Early Learning and Care will pause enrollment for the state’s Employment Related Day Care program and open a waitlist due to increased demand and limited funding.
Enrollment in the ERDC program, which is paid for by both federal and state dollars, has grown by 52% in the last two years. Advocates said that’s because of program changes that increased eligibility and access. Enrollment is up 22% in the last two months alone.
Early Learning System Director Alyssa Chatterjee explained what those numbers look like on the ground. The state’s day care program supported nearly 9,230 families as of Feb. 2022. That number jumped to 14,010 by August this year.
The Department of Early Learning and Care began overseeing ERDC this July, just as the new agency was established. The daycare subsidy was previously supervised by the Department of Human Services.
“Oregonians depend on child care to keep our economy running,” Chatterjee said. “When we invest in early education and child care, we invest in families and our current workforce while simultaneously investing in our collective future.”
A spike in enrollment was expected, if not hoped for, after the state made a slew of changes to the program. In 2021, the state lowered copays, opened the program to nonworking students and extended the duration of eligibility from three to 12 months, among other actions.
To use the program, approved families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level – for example, up to $5,000 per month for a family of four – pay an income-based copay and can enroll with any provider that accepts ERDC, officials explained.
While many of these high-needs families will be affected by the upcoming waitlist, some will be able to skip it.
Families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Temporary Assistance for Domestic Violence Survivors (TA-DVS); families referred by the Child Welfare division of the Oregon Department of Human Services; or families who are reapplying for ERDC within two months of benefits ending won’t be put on the waitlist.
Families receiving benefits before the Nov. 3 deadline won’t be impacted either.
“While it’s challenging that there is a waitlist, this is the largest take-up rate we’ve ever seen for this program,” Chatterjee told OPB. “Over 14,000 families are currently enrolled, and that is huge.”
The increase pushes back on what Chatterjee considers a misconception of the ERDC program – that it was underutilized in years past because parents didn’t need the services.
“It’s because the program didn’t work for parents,” she said.
But many argue this waitlist was avoidable. In fact, child care advocates have been telling lawmakers for years that the benefits wouldn’t reach all eligible families if they didn’t invest enough money.
Two years of wins and losses
Until a few years ago, the state’s ERDC program had been historically underutilized, with declining enrollment. But advocates said it wasn’t because there wasn’t a need. It’s because the program didn’t work.
Many in need didn’t qualify. Copays were too high. Eligibility ran out too quickly.
Then came House Bill 3073, which passed in 2021 with bicameral, bipartisan support. The bill allowed Oregon to expand ERDC eligibility and keep copays at 7% of household income, pushing Oregon from one of the highest copays in the country to one of the lowest.
Advocates started telling legislators that year that more money was needed to cover the expansion. But since the legislation was based on a previously, seemingly unsuccessful program, lawmakers were reluctant to put more money into it.
During the legislative session this spring, advocates revisited the issue, calling for another $100 million, at least, for the program, warning state lawmakers that without more funding, many Oregon families would be denied access.
There were some wins. Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Washington County, chairs the House Early Childhood and Human Services Committee, which the ERDC falls under. She pointed to the fact that lawmakers this session expanded access to childcare, stabilized existing funding and programming, increased the number and capacity of childcare facilities, and passed Oregon’s first state-based child tax credit.
But again, advocates said it wasn’t enough. The waitlist, they argue, is a direct result.
“Thousands of families eligible for assistance will never receive it because lawmakers refused to make child care a priority,” Candice Vickers, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, and Marchel Marcos, APANO political director, said in a joint statement last week. “Make no mistake. We warned lawmakers that without more funding, Oregon families would be denied access to the critical subsidies, making it immensely harder — if not impossible — to afford child care.”
Vickers and Marcos said parents, providers and advocates are calling on Gov. Tina Kotek and lawmakers to use “every tool available to prevent the waitlist from being enacted.”
“This is a failure of lawmakers to invest in children and early education that will be disproportionately felt by Black, Indigenous, and other children of color,” they said, “a failure that will only raise costs for hardworking families and set back economic growth.”
Gov. Kotek said there needs to be more state funding for ERDC – at least $50 million more this biennium – to meet the demand for child care assistance across the state. She said there have been productive conversations with legislative leaders about addressing the funding gap in the next session.
Federal funding about to expire
Child care advocates are also aware of the looming Sept. 30 cliff for federal relief dollars via the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.
Oregon’s lowered 7% copay cap was made possible, in part, due to this funding. Chatterjee said the state’s been able to leverage enough money to keep this cap in place through the 2023-25 biennium. What’s in question is the two years after that.
“There will be a cliff in the 2025-27 biennium. So, regardless of the status of our caseload and the size of our caseload, there is a substantial gap that is being left with ARPA,” she said, adding the legislature will either need to backfill, or they would need more federal investments.
Officials anticipate the waitlist will last at least 18 months. That’s not including the long-term effects in Oregon from the ARPA cliff.
“It also could mean that the waitlist is prolonged,” Chatterjee said, “and we have to continue to reduce the caseload to absorb that decrease in funding.”
The department clarified that families will not be removed from the program regardless of the funding need. But families new to the program may have to wait even longer to begin receiving services.
The waitlist is likely to affect parts of Oregon differently. Right now, Chatterjee said large numbers of families in Lane, Multnomah and Washington counties have enrolled in the program but haven’t connected with providers.
That could be because there are no slots available in their immediate area, they haven’t found the right type of provider, they need a provider who does evenings and weekends or one that offers services in a language other than English – or for myriad other reasons.
But she said they also know some rural communities have the least number of available providers.
Getting on the waitlist
Once more funding becomes available and enrollment drops to a sustainable level, officials said families will be selected from the waitlist based on the date they were added.
The first to apply will be the first selected for eligibility screening and potential enrollment.
Once a family is selected from the waitlist, they will have 45 days to reapply to determine eligibility. Once they are determined eligible, they have 12 months to find a child care provider that meets their needs.
The waitlist is likely to be in place for at least 18 months, depending on the level of investment and the rate at which families leave the program. DELC officials said they will provide regular updates to families on the waitlist.
Families can apply for ERDC by Nov. 3 at 11:59 p.m. in the following ways:
- Visit Benefits.Oregon.gov
- Go to their local office
- Call 1-800-699-9075
Families who still need support paying for child care after Nov. 3 are encouraged to reach out to 211 or their local early learning hub to apply for other child care and early learning programs through DELC, such as Preschool Promise or Oregon Prenatal to Kindergarten.
Go to Oregon.gov/DELC/ERDC to learn more.