Many people across Oregon are in child care deserts, with three or more children vying for each opening. (Getty Images)
Child care is becoming more readily available for families across Oregon. But state workers and lawmakers are still fighting for long-term improvements.
A new report from Oregon State University found that available child care slots for young children in Oregon grew by almost 5% from March 2020 to December 2022, thanks in part to increased public funding.
The vast majority of Oregonians support increasing state funding to support child care needs, according to public opinion surveys, and more than half of Oregonians with young children reportedly spend a fifth of their monthly income on child care. More than half of Oregon employers say child care access is a challenge in hiring and retaining workers.
OSU researchers tallied 71,153 child care slots for ages 0-5 in 2022, up from 67,981 in 2020. But there is still work to pursue to increase child care throughout the state, university officials said.
The increase lifted several counties out of “child care desert” status, according to a recent news release. A child care desert is an area where at least three children exist for every child care slot available. Severe deserts are defined as having at most one slot for every 10 children.
Since March 2020, eight of Oregon’s 36 counties have moved out of desert status for preschool-aged kids ages 3-5, according to the report, and another eight became less severe deserts for infants ages 0-2 and toddlers.
Though all Oregon counties except Gilliam County remain child care deserts for infants and toddlers, researchers found the number of publicly funded slots for this age group increased by 49%.
“We’re seeing a lot of those counties coming out of desert status because of the additional supply being developed from public funding,” Michaella Sektnan, co-author on the report and senior faculty research assistant in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said in the release. “Without that public funding, all except three counties would be child care deserts.”
Between 2020 and 2022, available child care in Oregon increased by 1,789 infant-toddler child care slots and 1,383 preschool slots. In the same time frame, the number of publicly funded slots throughout the state increased by 4,214, split between 831 infant-toddler slots and 3,383 preschool slots.
A large reason is that there’s been more money dedicated to addressing this issue.
Most of the public funding for child care in Oregon comes from the Early Learning Account created by the Student Success Act of 2019, officials said.
One-time child care stabilization grants disbursed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 helped private child care programs during the pandemic. The programs include Oregon Prenatal to Kindergarten, Preschool Promise and Baby Promise, all state-administered programs that receive both state and federal dollars.
Public funding is currently making a bigger difference in rural counties than in more metropolitan counties, the report found.
Overall, 52% of slots for children ages 0-5 in non-metropolitan counties are publicly funded, compared with 20% of slots in metropolitan counties. Only Deschutes, Multnomah and Washington counties would continue to not be deserts without public funding.
Researchers were pleasantly surprised to find Oregon’s child care availability is in a better place now than pre-pandemic, Sektnan said in the release.
“We know Oregon’s child care supply was not adequate before 2020, and the pandemic really highlighted that,” she said. “The current numbers speak to the efforts to restabilize and rebuild child care, but there is still important work to do.”
Some of the additional or emergency funds from the pandemic won’t be available in the future. And the report did not look at the factors affecting access to child care beyond general availability.
Cost, schedules, transportation distances, culture and disability accommodations all affect whether families can benefit from the child care available in their area, Sektnan said.
OSU’s report coincides with the 2023 legislative session, in which several bills addressing child care have been considered. Some didn’t make it out of committee, but some are progressing and could have an impact on the industry’s workforce and options statewide.
House Bill 2504, for example, which passed the Oregon House on a 44-9 vote and unanimously by the Senate education committee, would make it easier for people who have been trained internationally to work in child care domestically.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 559 – which passed the Oregon Senate on a 27-3 vote and is tentatively scheduled for a House vote on Monday – would require landlords to allow a dwelling to be used as a family child care home.
“It’s a good sign, but we can’t lose momentum,” Alyssa Chatterjee, Early Learning System director at the state Early Learning Division, said in response to the study’s findings.
The Early Learning Division, which will soon become the Department of Early Learning and Care, is currently working to increase availability and improve access by reducing licensing barriers, aligning program administration and reporting requirements, coordinating enrollment and making sure families are aware of the services available to them, Chatterjee said.
“We see this as our call to action for the state to continue investing in early learning and child care programs,” she said. “The long-term benefits of these investments are clear: stronger families, more equitable outcomes for Oregon children and a more robust economy.”
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