Daycare and preschool are less affordable in Oregon than in virtually any other part of the U.S. — what does it mean for our state’s working parents?

Beth Borts, Tom Aguilar and their daughter, Josephine.
Beth Borts, Tom Aguilar and their daughter, Josephine.

Portland residents Beth Borts and Tom Aguilar started looking for child care as soon as they found out Beth was pregnant.

As they visited various programs, sticker shock set in.

“We didn’t realize how much it would be for quality care,” said Borts, a sales and events manager at McMenamins Kennedy School in Northeast Portland. But it soon sunk in: Their monthly child care bill would rival their mortgage. The annual cost would exceed tuition at a state university.

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A 2014 report by Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable and high-quality child care, ranked Oregon as the second least affordable state for center based infant care in the entire United States, behind only New York and tied with Colorado. Washington ranked sixth. Oregon was the third least affordable for center-based care for 4-year-olds, while Washington was tenth. Child Care Aware calculates its rankings by measuring how big a chunk child care costs takes out of the average family’s paycheck each month.

As Borts and her husband searched for child care, they found a few programs where they might have been able to save a hundred bucks or two a month. But they also wanted a place where they felt their daughter Josephine would truly thrive.

They wound up at Earth Tortoise School, a small, well-regarded Montessori school in outer Northeast Portland, where tuition for five days a week, for an eight hour school day, is $1,125 per month. On a recent morning there, 2-year-old Josephine set out a placemat at snack time and poured a glass of water from a tiny pitcher, in keeping with the Montessori philosophy of fostering children’s independence.

To shave the cost, Borts and her husband stagger their work schedules so Josephine only attends four days a week. That means Borts works on Saturdays, but even then, their budget is tight. They haven’t visited Aguilar’s side of the family, who live in New Mexico, since Josephine was born.

“We only have one family day together,” Borts said. “It’s definitely a struggle.”

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May15_ChildCareCosts

Feeling the Pinch

Their struggle is shared by families all across Oregon, which has consistently received low marks for child care affordability.

Oregon is home to about 230,000 children younger than 5, according to the state’s Office of Child Care, a division of the Oregon Department of Education. Fewer than 15,000 of these children are in publicly funded programs like Head Start, while 137,000 are in some kind of formal or informal child care.

“Parents do a zillion things to reduce the amount they spend,” said Roberta Weber, a faculty researcher at Oregon State University and member of the state’s Early Learning Council.

Some families decide the price tag is insurmountable, and a parent, usually the mother, drops out of the work force. About 40 percent of the state’s children are cared for by their parents.

Others, like Borts and Aguilar, stagger work schedules. Still others lean on friends and family. Little wonder, given the bite full-time child care takes out of family paychecks, with center-based infant care costing an average of just more than $11,000 per year.

Oregon’s poor showing in Child Care Aware’s national rankings may be more a reflection of the state’s overall economy than anything, Weber said.

In 2012, it was 24 percent harder for families to purchase child care than it was in 2004, because in just those eight years, child care prices went up while household income went down, according to a study Weber authored for the Oregon Child Care Research Partnership.

Choice Time

At first, Melania Tolan-Hudson and her husband, Eric Hudson, tried to tag team care for their daughter Elly, 2, and fill in the gaps with help from family. Tolan-Hudson works from home, so she thought they could swing it.

“Eight months was my breaking point,” she said. It was too hard to handle the needs of an infant while also working on a cancer registry, a job that required stretches of intense concentration.

Erin Tooze watches Gioia Russo, 2, as she plays at Earth Tortoise School in Portland.
Erin Tooze watches Gioia Russo, 2, as she plays at Earth Tortoise School in Portland.

The couple set out in search of child care, knowing it would mean putting some of their goals on hold.

“We were trying to pay down bills and get out of debt. We wanted to buy a house,” Tolan-Hudson said. “I knew if I found the right place, it would be worth it.”

So for now, the family is staying put in a small condo, so they can afford to send Elly to Earth Tortoise.

“I’m so glad that I sent her there. It’s worth the price tag,” Tolan-Hudson said.

Earth Tortoise accepts 16 children at a time, ages 3 months to 3 years old, and maintains a ratio of one adult to every four children. It has a defined educational philosophy and an emphasis on learning.

A new child care quality rating system in Oregon, that seeks to build the supply of similarly enriching child care programs, gives the school four out of five possible stars in its ranking system.

The Bottom Line: Payroll

“We want parents to be able to access and afford child care,” said Megan Irwin, acting director of the early learning division of the Oregon Department of Education. “One of our greatest opportunities to make sure kids are ready for kindergarten is to help child care providers.”

But attaining quality comes at a cost, which is perhaps easiest to parse at small facilities like Earth Tortoise. As expensive as the monthly bill may be for families, it’s still hard for child care businesses to turn a profit, especially given costs that are largely invisible to parents, including insurance costs and property taxes or rent in the Portland area’s pricey market.

Melania Tolan-Hudson, Eric Hudson and their daughter, Elly.
Melania Tolan-Hudson, Eric Hudson and their daughter, Elly.

Also, staffing levels must comply with state-mandated ratios, to ensure quality of care. Oregon requires one caregiver for every four infant/toddlers; the ratio jumps to 1:5 when kids hit two years old, and 1:10 for preschoolers. In practice, many centers hold ratios at 1:3 for the youngest kids, 1:4 for two-year-olds and 1:8 for preschoolers.

Earth Tortoise owners Maya Bowen and Erin Tooze run their school out of a house in Portland’s Gateway neighborhood. It’s not either of their residences, but they rent out one of the rooms to a boarder. Their biggest expense is payroll, but they also have to pay for upkeep and maintenance of the home, plus provide snacks and durable toys for their students.

Generally, better schools have lower student-to-teacher ratios, plus support staff — and that means higher costs are passed on to parents. If a child care facility is more expensive, there’s a good chance that’s partly because it’s offering health and vacation benefits to its workers, which can mean less turnover and a happier staff, along with the high price tag.

“We work in the classroom full time,” Bowen said. “We have to do all of the accounting, emails, licensing stuff and all the other things that come with running a child care … after hours.”

Left to right, Marianne, Gioia and Linda Russo
Left to right, Marianne, Gioia and Linda Russo

Bowen and Tooze both have degrees and Montessori certification. One of the teachers they hired is working on a master’s degree in speech pathology.

“We have high-quality teachers who are invested in this field and who we can only pay $12.50 an hour,” Bowen said. “That’s the honest truth of it: If you want to work with children, you’re not going to make much money at all. At $15 an hour, you’re making a good amount of money if you are working with this age group.”

Child care workers earn median annual wages between $19,760 at the entry level to $28,683 at the high end, according to the 2013 Oregon Child Care Research Partnership report.

That fact is not lost on Linda Russo, who started looking for child care early when she and her wife, Marianne, had their daughter, Gioia, now 2. Marianne is a nurse, and Linda, a teacher.

“I have a background in early childhood education,” Linda Russo said. Even though child care takes a big chunk of her family’s household budget, she said “it’s the only way to get high-quality people.”

A Helping Hand

While Oregon tries to measure and improve the quality of child care through a rating system, it is also trying to address access and affordability through subsidy programs. Paying for child care is hardest for those who have the least. Families with incomes of less than $27,545 a year spent 29 percent of that on child care, according to an Oregon Child Care Research Partnership published in 2009.

Though the Employment Related Day Care program, the state offers subsidies to working families who earn 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $44,862 for a family of four. Legislation proposed this year would extend subsidies to families earning 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $60,625 a year. The monthly copayment is based on family size and income. The proposed changes would link the subsidies to Oregon’s new quality rating system, so that the higher a program’s rating, the lower the family’s monthly copayment.

Still, child care costs pinch even those who don’t qualify for subsidies, Irwin acknowledged.

“It’s a definitely a real issue for the middle class,” Irwin said. “At the state level, we have limited resources. Our focus is on families who live in poverty. We’re really looking at the state putting investment where the need is greatest.”

Other developed nations invest in subsidized child care. While President Obama has proposed expanding preschool programs for low- and moderate-income families, true universal child care is not really on the agenda in the United States.

But Weber asks the question anyway: Given that the public subsidizes kindergarten through university, “why in these critical early years do parents pay the full burden?” n

“The relationship between our income and child care cost is out of balance. It’s tough for families in Oregon.” – Roberta Weber.

Erin Middlewood is an award-winning journalist and mother of two from Vancouver, Wash.

Erin Middlewood
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