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Oregon's Child Care Affordability Trap

Liam Moriarty/JPR

With stay-at-home parents increasingly rare, finding high quality, affordable child care has become a major challenge for many families. A recent report found Oregon has the least-affordable child care in the nation. This is a look at the hurdles parents face and how some are coping with the squeeze.

In the predawn dark on a weekday morning, Natasha Hale hustles to get her two rambunctious sons ready for their day. As she pours milk and cereal in the kitchen, Hale talks about her daily schedule, which starts at 5 a.m.

Natasha Hale: “I usually get up before them and get myself ready. Get in the shower and everything, get their clothes ready and out for them, get myself mostly ready before I wake them up, usually about 6:15, is when I start getting them up.”

Hale is a single mom and a full-time student at Southern Oregon University. Her six-year-old son Andrew goes to first grade at a nearby elementary school, then goes to an afterschool program till his mom gets out of class. Five-year-old Connor goes to a Head Start preschool four mornings a week, then spends the afternoons at a day care center on campus. On Mondays, he spends all day there. 

Hale gets some help from a program that subsidizes day care for students, and from the federally-funded Head Start program.

Natasha Hale: “If it wasn’t for Head Start, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going to school. I don’t know what I would have done.”

Hale says a major reason she’s going to SOU is that after attending community college and getting certified as a medical assistant …

Natasha Hale: “Even with a certified degree I can’t afford to pay day care, mostly, that the big thing, is the day care.”

Even with the help she’s getting, Hale struggles to come up with the $400 dollars a month in child care she pays out of pocket.

Demetria Hebert is in a similar situation. Also a single mom, also a full-time student at SOU, Hebert is paying for child care for her five-year-old daughter and four-year-old son with money from her student loans.  It costs just over $800 dollars a month. This semester, she says, she’s had to cut back on day care.

Demetria Hebert: “I just can’t afford to have them in so much, and I was having them in so I could get my homework done so that when I did have them I wasn’t doing my homework. But this term I’m not doing that.”

Even then, Hebert says, child care eats a big chunk of her income.

Demetria Hebert: “It’s more than my rent. It’s probably the first highest cost I have to pay.”

Michelle McCready says that’s not at all unusual.

Michele McCready: “Child care fees for two children in a child care center exceeded the annual median rent payments in every single state.”

McCready is with Child Care Aware, a national advocacy group that issues an annual report on affordability in each state. This year, Oregon was rated least affordable, when child care costs were factored in with the state’s cost of living and other factors.

The report shows child care costs are going up as much as eight times faster than family income. In many states, including Oregon and California, a year of day care costs more than a year of tuition at a public college. And that, Mc Cready says, stresses parents and damages family life.

Michele McCready: “As these child care costs are going up, they have to work non-traditional hours, for example. We’ve seen one parent takes the early shift and the other one takes the later shift just to put food on the table.”

For a single parent like Demetria Hebert, the burden can feel crushing.

Demetria Hebert: “I’m always behind. There’s no way I can come up with 818 on top of 660 for rent, on top of utilities, car insurance, phone, internet just so I can do my homework … I don’t have anything that’s extra. I just have things that I need.”

Why does child care cost so much? Sara Stearns says it’s certainly not because child care providers are getting rich.

Sara Stearns: “The hourly wage is pretty close to minimum wage. If you’ve been a teacher for a while maybe you’ll get 10, 12 dollars an hour.”

Stearns is director of the Schneider Children’s Center at SOU. She says many of her workers have bachelors or even masters degrees, but some still qualify for food stamps or other government assistance.

Sara Stearns: “I have a friend who’s the director of a program in Medford. She’s been in the profession for over 15 years and as the director she’s making 12 dollars an hour with no benefits. That’s not a livable wage.”

Stearns says her employees get benefits, a rare bonus in the industry. But between rent, utilities, food, materials and all the other expenses of providing a quality program, she says, there’s little left over for boosting salaries. Stearns says ultimately, society has to decide that subsidizing early childhood education is worth the investment.

Sara Stearns: “We want to have children that are able to make decisions, that can know how to problem solve, that can think outside the box. And if they're not educated from a very early age, that’s not going to happen.”

There are efforts afoot regionally to boost government support for early education. Democrats in the California legislature are pushing for universal preschool starting at 4 years old. And in Washington, there’s a bipartisan proposal to expand subsidies for low income families to improve access to high-quality preschool.

But that’s still a far cry from the robust support systems in many other developed countries. Canada, for example, pays parents a monthly day care stipend for each child under 6 years old.

Meanwhile, for parents like SOU student Demetria Hebert, the daily struggle to pay for day care shows little sign of letting up. When she graduates, Hebert says, her student loans come due. And the need to work full-time to pay them will mean less time with her kids, and even higher child care bills. 

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.