Column: Addressing the child care crisis on the Oregon Coast

Cannon Beach Gazette

Welcome to the first edition of the “Merkley Monthly”! In this column, I’ll address topics in Oregon’s rural and coastal communities served by Country Media Newspapers.

Coming from rural Douglas County, myself, I know how essential local newspapers are for speaking to the unique needs of your communities and keeping folks connected. So, I’m excited for this opportunity.

Every year, I host town hall meetings for all 36 Oregon counties. I’ll use this monthly column as an extension of that town hall spirit and the “Oregon Way” to answer questions and address issues that have come up in the town hall meetings in your communities, which means these topics will be relevant and local to you.

One topic I hear about in every rural and coastal community is the lack of affordable, quality child care.

If it feels more difficult to find child care than it used to be, that’s because it is. Since 1999, the total number of child care slots in Oregon has dropped by about 6,600. Oregon State University estimates that, for families of infants and toddlers, 35 of 36 counties qualify as child care deserts where there can be as many as 10 children competing for the same child care spot.

The numbers are stark. Up north, at the mouth of the Columbia River, Clatsop County has child care for only 8 percent of its infants and toddlers. Farther south, it drops to 6 percent in Lincoln County. And, down in Curry County, there’s only child care for 3 percent of their infants and toddlers.

Even if that spot becomes available, families may not be able to afford it. In Oregon, the average cost of child care is nearly $13,700 a year – or more than in-state tuition at Portland State University.

As one mother put it, “A day care bill is a mortgage right now.”

Parents who can’t find afford child care options often are forced to use up their paid time off or drop out of the workforce altogether. In Clatsop County, it got so bad that two hospital systems donated funding for local child care services because of staffing shortages.

Child care workers need to be paid a living wage, too. The average child care worker in Oregon makes about $12.90 an hour, and the profession has high burnout and turnover rates.

What can we do about it? During the pandemic, Congress created Child Care Stabilization Grants that sustained approximately 220,000 child care providers, saved an estimated 9.6 million child care slots, and protected more than 1 million child care jobs across the country. Oregon received nearly $250 million to sustain more than 3,000 child care programs and support more than 80,000 children. But those funds expired on September 30.

We need to pass the Child Care Stabilization Act to restore this successful and needed program. Then we need to build on it by passing the Child Care and Working Families Act so eligible families pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care.

Middle-class families deserve a break. This legislation is a start, and I will continue to fight to expand and improve child care in Oregon and across the country.