How to solve Oregon’s child care crunch

Editor’s note: Throughout 2023 and into 2024, OPB is taking a deep look at the biggest social and economic challenges facing Oregon today – their origins, their impacts and possible solutions. This week, we’re looking at the statewide child care crisis.

Natalie Kiyah should have been celebrating. The single mother from Gresham was running a successful, full-time business combining photography, web services and marketing back in 2022. She’d been growing her company and reached a new high that year.

With the help of state benefits like SNAP, she finally felt like things were going her way. Maybe she could buy a house, start saving and pay down debt.

But then she unexpectedly got pregnant again, and when it was time to re-apply for state-subsidized child care, the numbers didn’t add up. Kiyah’s annual earnings were just $2,000 over the state limit to qualify for the subsidies, and she didn’t make enough to afford private child care on her own.

Kiyah had to massively scale back her business in order to stay home with her youngest children. That soon meant she couldn’t afford rent. In the spring, two days before her 31st birthday, the expectant mother was forced to move with three children under the age of 8 into a family homeless shelter.

It was a “crashing moment,” Kiyah recalled, asking herself what the next step would be to provide safety, security and stability for her family.

Natalie Kiyah holds her baby in a carrier strapped to her chest and kisses the baby on the forehead while holding back some hair. She stands in front of a white tarp tent that has a blue sign in front of it. The sign says, "Don't hang families out to dry. #FundChildCareNow." There are baby onesies strung up on and around the sign.

Natalie Kiyah kisses her 5-month-old baby while standing on the Oregon Capitol Mall with fellow advocates on Jan. 11, 2024. Kiyah is a single mother of four who previously became homeless when she couldn’t afford child care.

Natalie Pate / OPB

“I have experienced existing in survival mode before,” Kiyah told OPB. She held her then 5-month-old baby in a carrier strapped to her chest while she stood on the Oregon Capitol Mall with fellow child care advocates on Jan. 11. The baby cooed quietly as Kiyah remembered giving up their home.

“But the level of survival mode that my body entered at that time, and the absolute anger that I had …” Kiyah paused briefly.

“I felt angry because I’m not the only one,” she said. “Angry because I knew that the systems keep us in the cycle of poverty.”

Oregon’s child care system, like the rest of the country, is a mix of in-home care, private facilities of various sizes, employee-provided care and school-based centers. Oregon has a new statewide agency dedicated to early learning, and it has various programs that help families who have the hardest time paying for these services to make them more accessible. But there are also glaring gaps, especially for families not wealthy enough to afford the high costs on their own but not poor enough to qualify for low-income services.

Kiyah is one of tens of thousands of parents and guardians who face difficult decisions like these because of the inadequacy of Oregon’s system.

It took Kiyah losing her business and becoming homeless for her to qualify for subsidized care again under Oregon’s Employment-Related Day Care program, or ERDC. She now has a full-time job, which she loves, but even that could put her at risk of losing affordable care all over again in the next eligibility cycle.

Yet qualifying at all makes Kiyah one of the lucky ones: an outlier in a system filled with inconsistency.

Oregon’s imperfect child care patchwork

Oregon’s child care system is leaving hundreds on a waiting list for government assistance, costing individual families thousands of dollars a month, and exacerbating inequities, especially for mothers and women of color.

COVID made things worse, but the pandemic didn’t break Oregon’s child care system. It’s been broken for years. There are local, national and historical examples of success that could help. So, why is it so hard to fix?

Child care is a complicated patchwork of private and public services. It’s expensive to recruit, hire, train and pay workers and to expand physical spaces to accommodate more children. Families need a range of options, especially for those with unique needs, such as families in isolated rural communities, children with special needs and families who need care on weekends or evenings.

Ada Perez, 4, investigates the insides of a pumpkin at Escuela Viva Community School’s Southeast Portland location, Oct. 26, 2023.

Ada Perez, 4, investigates the insides of a pumpkin at Escuela Viva Community School’s Southeast Portland location, Oct. 26, 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

But aside from the day-to-day operations, there’s also the bigger, more existential debate — who is responsible for ensuring our youngest children in their most formative years are given quality care, education and socialization to prepare them for the K-12 system and beyond?

To meet those needs, advocates and many families argue there has to be political will, increased funding, and public support to prioritize and fix the child care system.

Oregon has a network of state-supported programs, from Preschool Promise to Head Start, and it offers lower copays for government-subsidized child care than many states. But while Oregon’s child care services are in some ways better than those of many other states, local advocates see an insufficient system that’s on track to get even worse without significant intervention.

Some of that push comes during major political moments, like elections and legislative sessions.

One of the major priorities for Oregon advocates in the upcoming short session will be to allocate the $221 million needed to serve all the families on the ERDC waitlist that sprung up last fall. In doing so, they hope to connect hundreds more families to the assistance that helped Kiyah.

With tax collections up, there could be money available to invest in child care solutions, and some state leaders, including Gov. Tina Kotek, have expressed interest in addressing the issue.

What’s not clear is if anything will change. Can current success stories be replicated? Will anything result from lawmakers’ actions? And if so, is it enough to truly move the needle?

High costs to working families

Candice Vickers went back to work seven days after having a baby by cesarean section. She said there wasn’t another way for her to afford child care.

Candice R. Vickers, Executive Director of Family Forward

Candice R. Vickers, Executive Director of Family Forward

Courtesy of Charles Vickers

Vickers is the executive director of Family Forward Oregon, a nonprofit with the goal of economic and reproductive justice for all mothers and caregivers statewide.

A mother of two, she’s leading the organization after being in public education for 15 years.

“I could see really clearly that there was an area that needed advocacy that was more impactful on the lives of students and families than even what goes on in the classroom,” Vickers said.

U.S. Census data show there are more than 223,000 children age 5 or younger living in Oregon. While some families can supervise their small children without needing a child care slot, parents in need often can’t access one. Less than a third of Oregon’s youngest children have access to regulated child care facilities. And according to the Oregon research and policy organization Children’s Institute, 60% of Oregonians spend 20% of their monthly income on child care.

Costs average to about $2,500 a month for infant care, Vickers said, and more than $2,100 a month for toddlers.

And it’s gone up in recent years. The Child Care Research Partnership at Oregon State University released a market rate study that found prices increased by 15-37% in just two years from 2020 to 2022.

Costs vary widely based on geography, type of facility, and other factors, according to research from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

If families want fewer students per teacher to have more individualized attention, the rate goes up. If they want to increase workers’ salaries or match them to that of K-12 educators, it goes up again. Every aspect that can make child care more appealing to parents or workers — from providing retirement benefits to offering health insurance, making time to plan lessons, or investing in larger spaces and learning materials — increases costs.

All of these things cost money, whether the child care is provided in someone’s home, at a daycare center or in a school.

But unlike traditional businesses — such as a coffee shop that could charge more for a drink if costs go up — child care centers can’t always increase families’ tuition. If they do, many providers fear they will drive families away from an already expensive system.

“Our child care providers are not able to pay their workers a living wage so that they can stay in that system,” Vickers said. “They’re not able to grow their facilities and grow their footprint in their communities, because they can’t charge families the amount that they need to be able to do that.”

Tough conditions for child care workers

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted America’s severe need and lack of child care as centers shut down and workers left for other industries. Families scrambled day-to-day, often with little ones at home, while harried parents struggled to continue working.

Teacher Belicia Cervantes, left, and Felix Ocasio, 4, sing a song at Escuela Viva Community School’s Southeast Portland location, Oct. 26, 2023. Staffing shortages contribute to the lack of child care options in Oregon — low pay, a lack of benefits and time off, grueling hours and work that can be emotionally exhausting all combine for a tough job that often isn’t as highly valued as other education roles.

Teacher Belicia Cervantes, left, and Felix Ocasio, 4, sing a song at Escuela Viva Community School’s Southeast Portland location, Oct. 26, 2023. Staffing shortages contribute to the lack of child care options in Oregon — low pay, a lack of benefits and time off, grueling hours and work that can be emotionally exhausting all combine for a tough job that often isn’t as highly valued as other education roles.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

According to the Oregon Employment Department, employment in child daycare services dropped 35% in one month between March and April 2020, and the industry has yet to regain those losses.

In fact, nearly 20% of the child care workers who left the industry in Oregon during the height of the pandemic still haven’t returned. And that’s on top of staffing needs in the industry before COVID.

Staff shortages make it harder for centers to open more slots for children, which in turn limits parents’ abilities to re-enter the workforce. Parents of children under 6 make up 12% of Oregon’s workforce, according to the state employment department.

As advocates often put it: “Nobody works if child care doesn’t work.”

And for the workers who are still in child care, the conditions vary dramatically between sites and are often extremely difficult.

Low pay, a lack of benefits and time off, grueling hours and work that can be emotionally exhausting all combine for a tough job that often isn’t as highly valued as other education roles.

Angie Garcia owns Escuela Viva, a dual-language school with locations in Portland. She said she’d invite anyone to step into one of her preschool classrooms, or even more, an infant or toddler classroom, to see what it takes to help children new to the world understand and navigate what’s going on around them, let alone for extended periods of time with few breaks.

“It isn’t as simple as anyone stepping into that role. It has to be someone that these children trust and know and will feel safe in their care,” Garcia said.

“What I try to help people understand is: this system is an expensive system. And it should be. It actually should cost us even more,” she said. “We are in charge of the very first years and the development of small children. And what happens now has a lasting impact for the rest of their lives. And we [have] to get it right.”

Nat Glitsch sometimes works as a preschool teacher, but she’s mainly an internal organizer with ILWU Local 5, helping early education workers unionize for better conditions. Glitsch stressed the severity of understaffing and the negative effects it has on workers and families alike.

Glitsch said understaffing leads to a reduction in the quality of care children receive, especially when it comes to kiddos with higher needs. It also increases pressure on workers and administrators, leading to burnout and high turnover. It means families may get last-minute school cancellations because there aren’t enough adults to keep ratios below legal limits.

Oregon leaders have made efforts to build a pipeline of child care educators coming out of local colleges and universities. There are also new loan forgiveness programs, and advocates are pushing for more facility expansions.

This is a start. Simply put, Glitsch said, Oregon has to figure out a way to make child care and early education a sustainable place to work long-term.

“And if we don’t have people to do the work,” she said, “any other infrastructural thing we can do just won’t cut it.”

Families walk ‘tightrope’ in search for safe, supportive care

Arianna Avena’s oldest kid started at a preschool center that proudly presented itself as an inclusive space. But Avena said her daughter was only there for about two and a half months before she was kicked out.

Avena’s daughter is neurodivergent, something her mom sees as arguably her biggest strength. Avena affectionately described her daughter as a joyful, sensory-seeking kid — the child who doesn’t want to put a paintbrush on paper but instead rubs her cheek with the brush’s soft bristles.

Arianna Avena, left, helps her 4-year-old daughter get dressed to attend preschool, Jan. 30, 2024, at their Southeast Portland home. After several attempts, the Avena-Grubb family was able to find a child care center that supported neurodivergent kids like their daughter.

Arianna Avena, left, helps her 4-year-old daughter get dressed to attend preschool, Jan. 30, 2024, at their Southeast Portland home. After several attempts, the Avena-Grubb family was able to find a child care center that supported neurodivergent kids like their daughter.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

However, Avena’s daughter also has behaviors that are harder to handle. She has a sensory processing disorder and cognitive delay in impulse control. Because of this, she often gets overstimulated by sensations like bright lights and loud sounds — then, she takes action, such as throwing things or, at worst, biting. Without adequate staffing and training, some centers opt to remove higher-needs children for extended periods of time or directly expel them.

The next center Avena tried was specifically for neurodivergent kiddos. But the classes were only offered a few days a week for a matter of hours, and it was a 40-minute commute with traffic each way to the Tigard center from their home in Portland’s Mt. Tabor neighborhood. So, that didn’t work.

The third location was possibly the most traumatic. Avena’s daughter was only there for a day — long enough for Avena to request an investigation by the Department of Human Services. To protect the family’s privacy, Avena requested to withhold the name of her child, who uses she/they pronouns.

“[My daughter] had told me that they were hit by a teacher and that the teacher had yelled at them,” Avena said.

“They told me what they said. They told me where on their body they were hit. And it was one of the hardest things I had to hear.”

Avena’s family experienced several of the barriers that Oregon families face in finding child care — the need for special education services, the importance of location and a required sense of safety and trust. She also believes there’s a misconception that neurodiverse kids are mostly served by the child care system and that just a few fall through a gap.

“I would say that there’s no gap,” she said. “It’s a tightrope that families are walking. And it’s very, very easy to slip.”

Child care needs are unique to each family and kid, but they also demonstrate deep systemic problems shared widely across Oregon communities. Parents who don’t work a traditional Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedule can be hard-pressed to find providers with available hours, especially for nights and weekends. Families in rural areas — including Oregon’s coast and southeastern counties — face especially high deficits. Lack of centers, slots and transportation all factor in.

Still, it remains a statewide issue. Nearly every county in Oregon is considered a child care desert — where there is about one slot for every three children — and many counties are considered “severe” child care deserts — where they have (at most) one slot for every 10 children.

Avena was finally able to get quality, accessible care for her eldest through Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program, which connects 3- and 4-year-olds to free, culturally responsive, inclusive preschools. The program, which was approved in 2020 by 64% of voters, is funded by a personal income tax on the county’s highest earners.

Some critics have voiced concerns that it could take away from other established programs, or that attempts to duplicate such a program wouldn’t be supported in more conservative parts of Oregon. But supporters argue it’s a model that should be replicated across the country and one that should expand to serve all children ages 0-5.

Preschool for All’s goal is to prioritize those who have the least access to high-quality care, expanding over time to serve any family that needs it in the county. When the program expanded its eligibility to include children with special needs, it allowed Avena’s child to attend Escuela Viva.

Having her family’s needs met has been a game-changer.

“I finally have those experiences that everyone else seems to have when you send your kid to preschool, and you just get to watch them grow, and you get to watch them bloom, and come home, just a more rich version of themselves,” Avena said. “It’s been a beautiful experience.”

Making child care a social, political priority

If people are going to invest any money into someone’s future, labor economist and retired professor Mary King says it should be when they’re youngest.

In the first few years of life, research shows a child’s brain forms more than a million neural connections every second. This pace helps form 90% of a child’s brain before age 5, making it an essential time for developing social skills, learning and language abilities, and emotional and physical health.

And those investments, King said, benefit everyone, producing substantial returns in local economies — with some estimates showing up to $10 for every $1 invested — and lowering dependency on welfare programs, the criminal justice system, K-12 schools and more.

King, who taught economics at Portland State University for more than 20 years, described early childhood education funding as a “two-generation, anti-poverty strategy.” It reduces disparities in gender, race and class, and it increases high school graduation rates and incomes. That’s why King thinks of these investments as a kind of “silver bullet” in public policy.

“If you can only intervene in one place, it should be early childhood,” she said, “and that’s so misunderstood. People just don’t get that everything starts there.”

And when these investments aren’t made? King says we “waste human potential.”

America has flirted with the idea of nationwide, government-funded child care before, touching on it briefly and within certain sectors. Military families today, for example, often pay less per month for child care compared to civilians, even though workers in military child care are paid more.

But there are historical examples, too.

In 1940, Congress passed the Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act, known as the Lanham Act, funding public works, including child care, in communities with defense industries. The money went toward building new centers and hiring nurses, cooks and helpers, among other things.

Although the elaborate patchwork system wasn’t perfect, it allowed an estimated 500,000 children over the course of World War II to gain access to recreation, food, early education and a safe place to sleep, while fathers fought overseas, and mothers took on the jobs needed domestically.

Then in 1946, with the war over, the funding ended. Nurseries shut down. School districts struggled with the impacts. And parents protested, reportedly dismissed by some as “hysterical.”

Mary King, labor economist and retired Portland State University professor

Mary King, labor economist and retired Portland State University professor

Courtesy of Portland State University

For scholars looking back on this, it delivered a statement about America’s values and priorities: “Evidently,” King said, “this is something we’ll only do for war.”

The U.S. almost got national child care again in 1971 when Congress sent legislation to President Richard Nixon. Nixon vetoed it, amid concerns at the time about communism and the government controlling American families.

Things have continued to change in a way that makes caring for children more complicated. More children are living in poverty today, and parents have fewer relatives around to help them. King pointed to the many factors driving that: Society has evolved away from a place-based agricultural economy, more family members are moving away from home (often very far away), we have smaller nuclear families and older relatives are working longer, making them less available to offer care.

About 50 years after Nixon’s veto, another worldwide threat forced America to reflect and adjust. Government officials again provided resources to critical businesses, including child care providers, at the height of the COVID pandemic — not flawlessly, as advocates say, but with more support from lawmakers and voters than seen in decades.

This time, we had more information. We had more knowledge of the child care crisis. We had stronger communications systems, transportation, meal programs and early childhood expertise. Child care again became a major talking point in the news, public conversation, legislative hearings and budget discussions.

Short-term relief — particularly under the federal American Rescue Plan Act — renewed hope among advocates for long-term, sustainable funds. And yet again, the tap was turned off when the bulk of the threat diminished.

Federal ARPA funds ended last September, pushing states toward a fiscal cliff.

Nationally, research from the Century Foundation suggested that more than 70,000 child care programs — one-third of those supported by the federal stabilization funds — would likely close because of the cliff. That included nearly 650 in Oregon.

Parents were expected to lose $58 million in earnings as a result of being forced to cut work hours or leave the workforce to care for their children, according to the foundation. And at least 2,387 child care jobs were expected to be lost. More than 16,000 Oregon children were at risk of losing care.

Oregon lawmakers took action in preparation for this but only bridged some of the gap. With only a partial fix, advocates are looking for further help in the upcoming short session.

“History repeats itself,” Vickers with Family Forward said. “We know as a nation what happens when we adequately and fully fund child care. We know how much of a boon to the economy that is. And we also know what happens when we stop funding child care.”

Looking to elected leaders for future action

Oregon Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, described himself as an “unlikely ally” in the fight to improve the state’s child care system.

He’s older, male and Republican.

Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City

Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City

Courtesy of Sen. Dick Anderson’s office

But he’s seen the impacts of an incomplete system felt by the residents of his rural, coastal town for years. Namely, he’s witnessed a lack of dedicated state resources and minimal options for care.

From his viewpoint, child care, education, housing and health are all interconnected, and not having affordable, accessible child care, he said, is holding the state’s economy back.

“I don’t think it’s a political issue,” he said, emphasizing that he means it’s not a partisan issue. But Anderson does think this is something the state needs to work on.

“As a state and as a legislature, we don’t do a very good job [with] how we handle crises,” he argued. “We let them develop, then we throw band-aids on ‘em for a while, and nothing really accomplishes anything other than kicking them down the road.

“That’s what we keep doing with child care as well.”

That’s part of why Anderson was the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 1040 last spring. The new law will soon establish a pilot program of child care “micro centers.” The care programs under the pilot are meant to help communities that need something larger than the family homes that only serve a few neighbors, but smaller than the large complexes that don’t exist in many parts of the state or simply don’t have slots.

The micro centers will theoretically help operations somewhere in the middle, serving closer to 25 kids, that previously faced too many financial or licensing barriers for it to be worth it.

The Republican-led bill passed with nearly unanimous support in both the Oregon Senate and House.

“It’s not a Republican issue here or a Democrat issue,” Anderson said. “It’s a community, statewide … issue. And I like to think that we’d all be doing good policy that would help all Oregonians and businesses to thrive.”

As more issues around child care come to light, there is action taking place, even if it’s slow moving.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon

Courtesy of the Office of Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici

Nationally, President Joe Biden has outlined future investment plans, and some members of Congress, including Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, are pushing for ways to update national child care tax provisions. In neighboring Washington, state Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, is urging the consideration of a bill this year that would delay some training and certification requirements with the goal of helping ease the state’s child care staffing shortages.

Locally, there are individual programs in Oregon, such as Preschool for All in Multnomah County, that advocates are pointing to as leading examples of how child care should be done.

As far as advocates like Vickers are concerned, most of the power to change Oregon’s child care system falls to its local and state lawmakers. Advocates have pushed to make child care a political issue, including in elections, and they’re paying attention to upcoming legislative sessions.

Many Oregon families and advocates are watching the short session in February to see if state lawmakers will invest the $221 million needed to address the projected ERDC shortfall.

Anderson said finding money to help people on the ERDC waitlist is one thing that can be done in the upcoming short session. But he’s also keeping his eye out for bills aiming to do more for children starting at birth — not just preschool ages — and to create more access and physical spaces across the state. One example is Legislative Concept 50, led by state Rep. Hoa Nguyen, D-Damascus, which aims to improve infrastructure, especially for rural and culturally responsive care.

“That’s where I think the state needs to come into play. I think it just ought to be, in essence, a cost to Oregonians,” he said. “We all would benefit by having a system that takes our young people, early on, and better prepares them for public schools [and] for life in general.”

Nearly 16,200 families are accessing child care through the state-subsidized ERDC program. However, the latest data from the Department of Early Learning and Care shows 1,360 families are on the waitlist, as of January. Vickers argues the lack of care for those families has a broad impact on the state and its economy.

“Those are folks who can’t work, who can’t go to school and who can’t pay their bills because they’re on a waitlist … that may or may not end based on our lawmakers’ engagement with the issue,” Vickers said.

“I think we all know that child care is important,” she continued, pointing to a recent survey showing that 80% of Oregonians support state funding increases to support child care needs, including respondents who don’t have children. That’s across the state, she stressed, meaning this isn’t a rural-vs.-urban or a partisan issue. “We see that voters want their lawmakers to engage in child care policy and child care funding. And we also see, simultaneously, a lack of energy and fervor around that.”

Vicker’s message to lawmakers? Fund what you’ve created.

“We need to be able to see the care economy as just as important as any other economic investment in our state.”

This examination of Oregon’s child care gaps was written and reported by Natalie Pate, edited by Rob Manning, and produced for the web by Meagan Cuthill, with photos and photo editing by Kristyna Wentz-Graff. This series exploring both the biggest problems facing Oregon and potential solutions is sponsored by the Oregon Community Foundation. And none of OPB’s journalism happens without you. Help us tell more stories like this one — and ensure stories like this reach as many people as possible — by joining as a Sustainer now.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify the estimated economic returns when investments are made in child care.