Volume XX | Issue 2 | Fall 2020
The shortage of child care has devastating implications: Without reliable child care, employees cannot return to work.

Not enough care: Oregon is a child care desert

The COVID-19 pandemic made a bad situation worse

If you have young children in Oregon, it doesn’t matter if you live in the mountains or the coast, chances are you are living in a desert — a child care desert. Defined as an area where there is only one child care slot for every three children who need care, child care deserts exist in all 36 of Oregon’s counties. 

A 2019 study by Oregon State University found that, statewide, there are eight infant and toddlers for every slot, and three preschool-aged children for every slot in that age range.

Devastating implications

The implications are devastating, since access to affordable child care is the key to restarting the economy. Without reliable child care, employees cannot return to work.

The problem is especially acute in rural areas. “Rural communities tend to have less child care available,” confirms Megan Pratt, coordinator of the Oregon Child Care Research Partnership, which conducts research related to child care policy at the local and state levels. “Even beyond that, rural areas have a hard time creating and maintaining child care options and are more likely to use home-based and family, friend, and neighbor care. For example, grandparents often fill the gap.”

The pandemic has made the situation even worse as centers closed, then reopened under new restrictions. At the outset of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of child care providers said they could not survive a closure that extended longer than one month. 

“Child care works on super slim margins,” Pratt says. “The majority of revenue comes from parent tuition, and when you have half as many clients, and you are supposed to have more staff for children, it’s very hard to stay open. It’s just a scary situation right now.”

Public-funded slots pay a critical role in creating and maintaining child care supply. Head Start, Preschool Promise and Baby Promise make up a substantial portion of the existing supply for children 0-5 years old in rural Oregon communities. Programs with contracted slots, which continue to receive payments regardless of child attendance, appear to be weathering this crisis better than those that fully rely on parent tuition, Pratt says. “These funds have helped keep many programs afloat as they cope with reduced enrollment and increased costs due to increased staffing and sanitization demands.”

Consultant Heidi East McGowan identifies three areas of challenge for rural providers:

  • Care for infants and toddlers is costly because of low staff ratios, and centers that serve fewer than 100 children are rarely able to make it pencil out.
  • Workforce requirements are challenging, particularly if you have a small population to draw from. That is especially true for education requirements for caregivers in the 0-3 age range. “You would ideally like to draw from the substitute teacher pool at the school where the child care center resides, for example, but child care qualification and the elementary school staff requirements do not align,” McGowan says.
  • And finally, co-pays for child care subsidies are disproportionately high in rural areas.

Innovative solutions

McGowan sees great promise in a shared services model that provides support for caregivers by offloading business functions such as invoicing, scheduling and,  most importantly, fee collection. The Shared Services Alliance project, in the Coos-Curry counties region, is supported by a grant from the regional Oregon Community Foundation Council. A small group of licensed child care providers are working in close partnership with the South Coast Business Employment Corporation, which provides back office support so providers can focus on the quality of their programs.

“Providers will receive access to a platform that supports billing and fee collection, as well as scheduling and marketing,” explains Taya Noland, the Child Care Resource and Referral director who is overseeing the project. “Child care is barely viable with the current situation, because what parents can pay does not align with the cost of providing care. In our region we’ve seen a lot of child care centers close down. This program can help stabilize providers who work close to the edge.”

Pratt also sees some innovative solutions popping up.  In Corvallis, Oregon State University created a shared Google sheet where parents and caregivers can match needs.

In Central Oregon, the Bend Chamber of Commerce, along with a consortium of regional businesses, early learning and health organizations, last year hired a “child care accelerator” to work on creating more options for those looking for quality, affordable child care.

Many communities are crafting collaborative solutions. In Douglas County, a large, diverse group of community partners are working together to develop a collective plan for child care solutions. In the near term, the Douglas County Child Care Coalition hopes to increase the number of school-age slots available by helping providers meet new requirements through donations of supplies and funds.

When McGowan did a fiscal analysis for Wild Rivers Coast Alliance, the grant-making arm of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, she found there was no way a small center could sustain itself if it were to provide infant-toddler child care. “So the community came together to provide support for it,” she says. Thanks to a coalition of businesses and organizations, the Bandon Community Child Care Center is now open at Ocean Crest Elementary.

The pandemic is expected to have a long-term impact on the availability of child care, which is already in such short supply. 

“It’s going to be hard to rebuild,” McGowan says. “We are going to have to see an increased investment from the public sector, philanthropy and also from businesses. But we can build it back  stronger than it was before. This is a great opportunity for that, if we can collectively be responsive.” 

Source: Oregon State University, College of Public Health and Human Sciences Oregon Child Care Research Partnership
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