Limited supply raises costs and restricts employment opportunities
By Barbara Cervone
Half of Americans live in a child care desert, with only one available child care spot for every three children in need of care. In Oregon, the number of communities lacking adequate child care options approaches 72%. Ashland is no exception.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a small group of local parents and day care providers came together at Peace House to talk with Oregon Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, about the gaping child care needs of Ashland families.
“There is no way I can have a family and work at the same time,” said Axia, with her youngest child, about to turn one, bouncing on her knee. (Only first names are used so mothers can feel free to speak about personal family and work matters.) “Affordable options simply aren’t available.”
Jess, the mother of two young children, went to law school and worked with various nonprofits before quitting when she couldn’t find adequate child care no matter how hard she looked. “The way we are structuring our society is pulling women out of the work force at all levels,” she said.
Rachel, who provides day care to vulnerable 3 to 5-year-olds through the state’s subsidized Preschool Promise, talked about the other side of the equation: staff burnout. “Pay incentives,” she cautioned, “aren’t enough to compensate for the burnout providers feel, having to work with inadequate staffing and resources and with kids who desperately need more support than we can provide.”
The lay of the land
In every other post-industrial country in the world, child care is considered a public responsibility, with governments spending an average of $14,000 per year for the care of their youngest citizens. In New Zealand, for example, the figure is $10,359.
In the U.S., where child care is seen as a private family matter, public support for families needing child care plummets to $500 — in a country that leads the post-industrial world in its child poverty rate paired with the highest GDP in the world. (When the United States started recruiting women for World War II factory jobs, the government subsidized childcare for the first, and only, time in the nation’s history, serving an estimate 550,000 to 600,000 children.)
“It’s an untenable arrangement,” Marsh said.
In Ashland, as is the case nationwide, preschool and child care are predominantly delivered through a patchwork of private providers, whose annual fees can approach a years’ college tuition. For households with an annual income of $58,000 — the median for families aged 25 to 44 in Ashland — the math is impossible.
And as Jess’s story shows, affordability is not the only hurdle. Child care that extends beyond 1 p.m. is a rarity here (in part because of licensing regulations) and waiting lists are long even for four-hour slots.
“It’s no wonder that so many women with young children lose footing in the work force,” said Katie Larive, an early childhood educator at Rogue Community College and long-time advocate for quality child care across Rogue Valley. Regina Ayars, co-president of the Ashland Branch of the American Association of University Women, which brought the group together on March 18, called it the “motherhood penalty.”
The good news, Rep. Marsh told the group, “is that we have a new governor who talks about making child care a top priority and have legislative leaders who are really stepping into the space and trying to elevate it.”
Marsh described three current initiatives. HB 3005 would put $100 million into child care infrastructure, intended to grow day care “slots” in communities across the state. HB 3029 would provide incentives for badly needed child care providers. Incentives include loan repayment subsidies, stipends, scholarships for students in early childhood professional development and housing assistance.
Another bill that Marsh has been working on, with former State Rep. Peter Buckley, would launch what’s being called The Southern Oregon Early Childhood Support Network —“a coordinated network to ensure every child in Jackson and Josephine Counties has an equitable opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to thrive.”
For the past several years, Buckley has been training early childhood educators across the county about the many traumas that can befall children in their most formative years and permanently harm their development.
On March 15, the Ashland City Council announced an ad hoc task force to address the paucity of child care options in the city.
Holes in the system
Nevertheless, in a child care system with many holes, legislation faces stiff obstacles.
Staff compensation is one. The median hourly wage for childcare workers in the U.S. is currently $10.39, nearly 40% below the median hourly wage of workers in roughly comparable occupations.
“I drive by Chick-fil-A on the way to my day care job, I see the sign ‘Now hiring, $15/hour,’ and I ask myself, ‘Am I crazy?’” said another provider in the Saturday afternoon group.
If the pay is so low, why is the cost of staffing — which accounts for roughly three-quarters of the cost of running a day care program — so high? “Licensing requirements that require a high ratio of staff are hugely important for safe, quality day care, but bad for the bottom line,” the National Center on Early Child Care Quality Assurance explains.
Finding suitable facilities at an affordable rent is no less challenging.
Last summer Rep. Marsh secured funding to create a day care program with 20 slots for struggling families in Ashland. There was no shortage of families, but months of searching failed to turn up an affordable setting that also met the outdoor space required for state licensing. The project never got off the ground.
Undaunted, Marsh recently introduced new legislation focused on barriers to creating suitable child care sites. In Ashland, she is also exploring the idea of putting mobile units housing preschool on multiple school sites.
Why quality child care matters
The arguments in support of a robust child care system are as plentiful as slots in the current system are rare. The Peace House gathering offered several.
The economics seem more apparent than ever: the pandemic reminded us that childcare is a linchpin of our economy. Put simply, parents can’t work without it.
We have learned, too, that high-quality child care keeps children safe and healthy. It helps children develop the social and emotional skills they need for success in school and in their lives outside of school. For vulnerable children, building these skills can make all the difference.
For families struggling with formidable circumstances — from poverty to the death of a spouse — it makes gut sense that supporting a child carrying these stressors can empower parents too.
Ruth, who balances the gifts of her Waldorf-inspired preschool program with the limitations of what she can provide, fought back tears as she talked about what she wished for beyond the success of her own program: “A world in which we are connected, where people care about other people’s children and not just their own, where we help people we’ll never meet.”
Seconding that emotion, Marsh pushed hard for local action.
“We can no longer avoid the issue of child care,” Marsh said. “We have families in our community who need it, it has become an issue for growing our workforce, it’s an issue for attracting families to our community, it’s an issue for supporting students and for people working in our community institutions.”
“We need to come together,” she continued. “We need a community campaign, we need a plan, and then we must act. This is doable.”
Ashland resident Barbara Cervone is founder of What Kids Can Do, Inc., earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree in education from Harvard University, and coordinated Walter H. Annenberg’s $500 million “Challenge” to reform America’s schools — at the time the largest private initiative to reform public education in U.S. history — from its inception in 1994 until 2000. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.