By Nancy Tannler
What has become known as a “childcare desert” has Oregon parents scrambling to find affordable, reliable places for their children while they are at work. The problem has been plaguing parents since before the pandemic and COVID-19 only exacerbated the problem.
Policy for the People is a radio Podcast on KMUZ that explores public policy. In a recent podcast, Alejandro Queral interviewed Andrea Paluso, Executive Director of Family Forward, and Mary King, Economics Professor, Portland State University, about why childcare has become a problem.
Paluso cofounded Family Forward 12 years ago, initially using the organization to advocate for paid family leave. Since then, Family Forward has been on the front line, organizing parents and other caregivers to take action to change a system that does not value or support caregivers and their families.
Paluso cited a statistic that puts childcare into perspective, “It costs $13,000 a year for infant care here in Portland, half of some wage earner’s income. The estimated fair rate for childcare is designated at seven percent of a family’s income.”
“The economic problem,” King said, “began because historically we have not equalized wages for women.” Childcare workers are receiving only slightly more than minimum wage for this labor-intensive job. These jobs are disproportionately done by women of color and immigrants and many rely on government subsidies like food stamps to survive.
Representative Rob Nosse said that they had been working on several bills to relieve the childcare crisis before COVID-19. Now it has become a state of emergency for parents, providers and kids across Oregon. The pandemic highlighted that childcare is essential to the infrastructure of our economy. Unfortunately, many of these workers are choosing not to return to childcare.
“We are experiencing really high turnover in childcare employees right now,” Paluso said. One of the big changes is the decrease in small home-based providers. Statewide there were 45,000 slots available in private businesses prior to the pandemic; now the numbers are about 15,000.
The increased cost of living and low wages makes it difficult to run a business in normal times. The pandemic has really impacted the viability of maintaining those businesses.
Rep. Nosse said that Oregon has made sizeable investments in early learning and childcare over the last several years but action on the distribution system has not kept pace with these investments.
“In 2021 the state got started making improvements with HB 3073. We just passed HB 4005 and also did a lot of budget/funding for childcare in HB 5202,“ Rep. Nosse said.
Another important improvement was the passage of HB 3073, introducing the One Integrated Eligibility system. Representative Karin Power has taken the lead on ensuring these bills made it before the legislature. HB 3073 minimizes the bureaucracy by consolidating all early childcare services into one state agency. This will include licensing, registration and the distribution of state and federal childcare funds.
County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and her team put together Ballot Measure 26-214, Preschool For All, passing with 76 percent of the voters in favor of the bill in November 2020. This program will benefit young children and parents by providing access to quality, affordable preschool. Enrollment is underway now. See multco.us/preschool for additional information.
Rep. Nosse said, “Universal childcare is still the optimal goal but universal preschool is certainly a step in the right direction.”
Federally, The Build Back Better bill 220–213 was passed by the House of Representatives in November 2021, but is stalled in the Senate. This legislation, one of the biggest the country has ever seen, creates a childcare and early learning entitlement program for children under six. It provides another means for families to access affordable, high-quality childcare in the setting that best meets their needs.
The US falls short of the standards set in many other industrialized countries in regard to family leave and childcare. Back in the 1970s when other countries were beginning to subsidize childcare, conservatives in the US argued that the government should not be involved in raising children. We have just begun to reassess that decision.
The local advocacy group Family Forward, Family Forward Action and our Representatives Nosse and Power are leading the fight to pass bold, statewide laws that will make life better for people to raise children here in Oregon.
As a society we have started to look at some uncomfortable truths about equity in the workplace. Spotlighting the childcare desert is an opportunity to raise public awareness about the reasons for the problem and the importance of choosing to invest in programs for the children and our future.