What's Wrong With Childcare In Oregon?

By Alan Montecillo (OPB)
Sept. 15, 2015 10:40 p.m.

Hong Seung Hui/Flickr


Childcare is hard to pay for, especially in Oregon. A study by Oregon State University showed that the

median price of childcare in Oregon is nearly $12,000 a year.

When that cost is taken as a percentage of yearly income,

Oregon ranks as the third-least affordable state for childcare in the country


The combination of low wages and high living costs is one reason Oregon ranks so high on that list. Compared with other states, working families in Oregon earn less at their jobs and pay more for the basics.

"For Oregon, the question is broader than childcare," Bobbie Weber, a researcher in family policy at Oregon State University, told Think Out Loud host Dave Miller Tuesday. "Why are our housing prices so much higher than in other states? The cost to families is a double whammy. You can't do without housing, and it's pretty hard to do without childcare. So they get hit twice."


One caller from Portland said he paid more for childcare than for his mortgage. But those high prices don't mean that childcare workers make much money. Megan Irwin, who directs Oregon's childcare agency, summed up the dilemma: While parents have to pay through the nose to get childcare, childcare workers themselves make between $10 to $13 an hour.

"We're trapped in this marketplace that is inaccessible and unaffordable for working families, but also keeps providers at the margins of profitability and the ability to stay in business," Irwin said.

Lowering the cost of childcare is a national problem. But Irwin did point out some new developments from the state legislature's most recent session. House Bill 2015 was signed into law and expanded the state's Employment Related Day Care subsidy, which is now available to working families or students whose income is within 185 percent of the poverty line, or $37,000 a year for a family of three. The bill also added incentives for centers that use the state's new quality assessment standards.

The agency received a total of $50 million to expand its services. But Irwin said the small but significant expansion isn't enough for the subsidy to reach most Oregonians who might need it, estimating that the Early Learning Division currently has enough to meet roughly 16 percent of eligible need.

The office's limited capacity also affects the enforcement of safety standards. A licensing specialist for Oregon's childcare office has an average caseload of 108. Cynthia, calling in from Salem, said, "I've seen some very serious safety violations that make me lose all trust in the centers. One of the biggest one is ratios - they're required by the state to have a certain caregiver to child ratio. And to have some of the best centers in Salem blatantly violate safety rules is heartbreaking."

Irwin said that it's a "huge deal" if centers aren't following the state's regulations for caregiver-to-child ratios. She also encouraged parents to call Oregon's Office of Childcare if they see any centers violating safety standards.

When it comes to quality, Weber said that every kind of childcare center - daycare, childcare centers, or home-based care - is capable of providing the kind of nurturing that kids need. She advised parents to "focus on the interactions between adults and children."

"I'd want to see warm, nurturing behavior. I'd want to see all children being included, and environment in which children are busy and engaged in learning," Weber said.

This kind of care is essential because, as Weber points out, society pays a high price when early childhood development is ignored. Kids who haven't been cared for enough by the time they reach kindergarten will constantly be at a disadvantage.

"The research is very clear: they don't catch up," she said.

Both Irwin and Weber agreed that it's going to take a much larger overhaul of the entire childcare system to make things better for everyone. But in order to do that, childcare needs to be put front and center.

Irwin said, "I can't remember the last time someone ran for office solely on making childcare affordable. We're in this trap because we just don't take the economics of what we're talking about as seriously as we should."