As Portland resident Jasmine Casanova-Dean spoke to lawmakers at a hearing on child care last week, her 67-year-old grandmother watched her 2-year-old daughter in another room.
Casanova-Dean can only afford professional childcare two days a week, so every other day she’s left shifting her work schedule, seeking help from family or friends, or telling her daughter to be patient while she finishes an important work meeting.
“My story is the same as countless other parents struggling to find affordable childcare,” said Casanova-Dean. “I and so many other parents don’t have to choose between caring for a child and working.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown are trying to help, though they’ve acknowledged the state can’t do enough to make sure every family who needs child care can afford it.
For Rep. Karin Power, the Milwaukee Democrat who leads the House Early Childhood Committee, says it’s a personal issue. She has two young children in childcare.
“It’s very expensive, and it’s very expensive for everybody,” Power said. “I also now hear of families who can afford care and still can’t get it because providers have closed.”
Brown called for $100 million in new spending. The legislature’s budget writers have not yet decided how to spend the roughly $1.5 billion in extra state money, but there is broad support among Democrats in the majority to spend at least some of it on child care.
Child care advocates back a plan it will spend about half of the $100 million amount on grants for new child care providers and existing facilities that plan to hire more staff or otherwise expand their programs.
Supporters pointed to the San Francisco-based Low Income Investment Fundwhich reported that $168 million was spent to create 273,000 new child care slots between 1984 and 2020. In total, that $168 million resulted in $29 billion in monetary benefits for families and communities, according to the organization.
Oregon will use another $21 million for direct payments to child care workers as incentives to stay in the workplace. Childcare workers are paid an average hourly wage of $14.95, according to the Oregon Employment Department — slightly more than minimum wage, but lower than the starting salaries offered by many retailers and fast-food establishments due to staffing shortages.
The final $4.3 million would go toward administrative costs associated with combining two state departments that dealt with child care. The Early Learning Division in the Department of Education set learning standards, while the Department of Human Services handled childcare subsidies.
Lawmakers last year mandated that the two functions be combined into a single new state department, and legislation being considered this year would give extra time to form the new Early Learning and Care Department.
Pending legislation, introduced by the House Early Childhood Committee, would also increase subsidies to move closer to paying the actual cost of child care needed by low-income families. Legislative fiscal analysts have not yet estimated those costs.
While her committee is working on policy changes, Power said the problems with child care come down to money and how society thinks about the need to care for young children.
Once children are 5, they have access to free K-12 education. In the current two-year budget cycle, the state spent $9.3 billion on K-12 education.
State and local governments pay teachers and other school personnel and build and maintain school facilities, but there is no similar spending on childcare facilities. As a result, child care remains unaffordable for many families, while those providing the care are among the lowest paid workers in Oregon.
“I often think, ‘What if every family was required to pay the full cost of sending their child to school?'” Power said. “I think most people would look at me like I’m crazy if I said something like that, because it’s just not something we would expect. Public education is such a core principle of our country, but we don’t extend it to smaller children.”
Researchers at the University of Oregon ran two ongoing national surveys of families with young children and childcare providers throughout the pandemic. In November, the team reported that nearly 60% of childcare providers experienced “significant staffing shortages”, compared to just 36% before the pandemic.
More than 85% of child care center directors said they have struggled to recruit and retain qualified workers, and nearly 40% said they are ready to leave their jobs or the child care field entirely within the next year.
“These numbers are likely an underestimate, as there were many reports showing that a large number of providers had already left the childcare workforce before we asked these questions,” the report said.
Jessica Boyd, a childcare provider and mother of two in Eugene, told the House committee that she has worked in childcare for 10 years. More than half of her monthly income went to pay for her older son’s childcare when he was young, and she left work for two years when her younger child, now 8, was born because she couldn’t afford childcare.
Over the past two years, Boyd said, her child care center has struggled to hire workers and has reduced the number of children it accepts because there aren’t enough workers to care for them.
“If it wasn’t for my husband, I wouldn’t be able to get by on a childcare worker’s wage,” she told committee members. “I could not be self-sufficient with my own income. It’s really disheartening when the people at Taco Bell make more than me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article underestimated how much child care advocates want the state to spend. It’s $100 million, not $90 million.