When Mary Lehmkuhle, a 36-year-old teacher who lives in the Cherry Park neighbor-hood in outer southeast Portland, was pregnant with her second child late last year, she planned to continue to substitute teach one or two days a week after some time off.

That is, until she realized how tough it would be to find and pay for child care for two kids.

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“I called the two day cares my older son had previously attended, but they didn’t have spots,” she says. She put her name on the waiting list in case one day a spot opened up. Then she started looking into sharing a nanny with another family. After three failed attempts, she finally found a nanny share that she thinks will work at least until this summer, when her in-laws will be in town for an extended stay. After that, she and her husband plan to get an au pair to watch the kids while Lehmkuhle works, because it will be both cheaper than day care and more flexible.

Her story is familiar to many working parents in the Portland metro area: It can be exhausting and seemingly impossible to find child care that suits a family’s needs and is affordable. The struggle causes some parents to shuffle their children from relative to friend to day care in an effort to save money, says Bobbie Weber with the Oregon Child Care Research Partnership.

“Economists will tell you that since it’s a market system, child care supply and demand are in balance. Those of us who are not economists would not agree with that,” she says.

She says finding preschool for a 4-year-old should be relatively easy based on supply and demand data. But: “If you have an infant or toddler, child with special needs, any kind of disability — either yourself or your child — or if you have income limitations, it’s going to be harder to find child care.”

Supply and Demand

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Statistics show what many local parents already know: Supply doesn’t meet demand for child care in Oregon. There are 166,498 children under age 6 in the state who potentially need care because at least one parent is in the workforce, but only 119,169 slots available in licensed or registered child care options, according to the 2017 Fact Sheet by Child Care Aware of America. That means there are only enough slots for 71 percent of the children who potentially need care.

If you include school-aged children who need summer or before and after school care, the picture is even bleaker. There are 400,000 total children in Oregon who potentially need care at some point during the year.

In Portland proper, there is capacity in the registered and licensed child care system to serve about 30,000 children. Most of those slots — about 22,240 — are in child care centers, which are significantly more expensive than home-based childcare.

Alida Cantor felt that mismatch of supply and demand when she began looking for care for her 16-month-old daughter. She called day care centers and child care providers near her home in Foster-Powell, but was only offered a spot on a wait list. She posted about her need for child care on a Facebook group for Portland moms, and was given some leads, but nothing worked out.

“We’re currently on a wait list for one near our house, but still figuring out a 6-week gap between when my husband starts work and when the day care anticipates a slot,” she says.

Costs keep rising

Between 2004 and 2014, the cost of child care in Oregon increased 24 percent faster than wages in households with children under age 13, according to Weber’s research, published in the Oregon Childcare Market Price Study. Between 2014 and 2016, rates continued to rise for most types of care. Currently, it costs an average of $15,000 a year for an infant to receive full-time care at an accredited child care center, according to the Child Care Aware report. The cheapest full-time option, in a home-based setting, is $8,824 — still out of reach for many families, particularly those with other children.

Generally, cost drops slightly for toddlers, and parents of 4-year-olds see another price drop. But full-time care for a 4-year-old at an accredited child care center is still about $11,000 a year.

In contrast, tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate student are about $11,500 at the University of Oregon, the most expensive public institution in the state.

Weber says the high cost means many families simply cannot afford to pay for care. “When we’re talking about child care, it’s always important to point out that there’s a whole group of people for whom this system is totally unavailable,” Weber says.

The current nationwide benchmark for affordable childcare is under 7 percent of a family’s income, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But for low-income families with no relatives or friends to care for children, the cost often ends up being drastically higher than 7 percent, according to a data snapshot released in December from the Casey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.

In fact, nationally, poor working families often spend more than 25 percent of their income on child care if they have children under age 3, the study found. “Low-income families with working parents face significant burdens paying for child care, which can function as a barrier to work and often means parents must rely on child care arrangements that are less formal and less stable,” according to the Casey research.

In other words, rather than pay for care, many families must choose between one parent leaving the workforce or having to shuffle kids between friends and relatives. And while the care from family members and friends is free, there’s often a psychological cost that comes with it, Weber says. “It’s a terrible thing for the parent and child to not have a reliable, steady routine,” she says.

What can be done?

Part of the problem is that the state hasn’t invested enough in high quality child care, says Miriam Calderon, director of the Oregon Early Learning Division. “Oregon families need access to quality, affordable child care. This is critical for a growing economy and for setting up our children for success in the future,” she says.

But despite the high cost of child care to parents, “child care providers still face tight margins and low pay,” Calderon says. There are about 6,000 day care workers in Oregon and their average annual salary is about $24,460, according to the Child Care Aware report.

Calderon sees the economic disconnect as something the state can help address.

“Building on Oregon’s public investment in child care that delivers higher quality at a cost that parents can afford is a critical priority,” she says, and the division is working with stakeholders and partners to create a strategy for achieving that. A spokesperson for Calderon says they aren’t planning to advocate for any big policy changes in the 2018 Oregon legislative session, which is a short session, only one month long. Instead, they’re focusing on strategies for the 2019 session, which is a longer session where lawmakers have more time to consider larger policy issues.

Some options for achieving more affordable child care are through expanding existing programs, like the Employment Related Day Care Subsidy, commonly referred to as ERDC, or Preschool Promise. Both are relatively small programs in Oregon that subsidize care for young children from low-income families. Oregon also has a child care tax credit, as does the federal government. The recent tax bill doubled the child tax credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000 and made it a refundable credit, meaning you can receive up to $1,400 even if you don’t pay federal income tax.

“Any of those can be tweaked and families will be better off,” Weber says.

There are only enough slots for 71 percent of the children who potentially need care.

Full-time care for a 4-year-old at an accredited child care center is still about $11,000. Tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate student are about $11,500 at University of Oregon, the most expensive public institution in the state.

Tips for searching for child care

Take your time 
If you plan to return to work after the birth of your child, you should start looking at child care options while you’re pregnant. This will allow time to assess your options and get on the wait list, which is often necessary for newborn care. Even for older children, it’s a good idea to start looking a few months in advance. You can call 211 for child care referrals or search for licensed providers near you by visiting OregonEarlyLearning.com. You can also visit our child care database at pdxparent.com/childcare-preschool/.

Visit and interview
Once you’ve identified a few options, it’s important to visit the provider and ask a lot of questions. Some common questions: How long have you been providing care? What type of training, education and certification do the provider(s) have? How many children are under care and what is the ratio of children to adults? What are sick policies? Is the child care area (either in-home or day care) clean, friendly and welcoming? Is it OK to visit your child at any time? Many of the same questions about safety, engagement and experience also apply to an in-home provider like a nanny or au pair.

Check them out 
Search a licensed child care provider’s record by visiting
OregonEarlyLearning.com and selecting Child Care Safety Record from the drop-down menu under “Parents and Families.” There, you can search complaint history or request compliance history. If you’re hiring a babysitter or nanny, you can conduct a background check, which can be done through many online services.

You can read more about researching child care at: pdxparent.com/child-care-may16/

And find more about the costs of child care at: pdxparent.com/child-care-expensive-april17/

Stay engaged
Once you make a decision, view your child care provider as a partner. That means checking in, volunteering when needed, being there for special events and scheduling regular meetings to discuss any issues.

Sources: Find Child Care Oregon (findchildcareoregon.gov) and Care.com.

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