OSU report illustrates child care scarcity for infants, toddlers

A new report from Oregon State University shows that as of March 2020, all 36 counties in Oregon qualified as child care “deserts” for infants and toddlers — meaning that there are at least three children under the age of 2 for every available child care slot in the county.

Researchers say the report, based on data collected prior to COVID-19, will serve as a useful baseline to highlight how the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing Oregon families with small children.

“This report confirmed what families understand: There’s not enough child care, period, but there’s really a crisis when it comes to infant and toddler slots,” said Megan Pratt, an assistant professor of practice in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and lead author of the report, published Monday. Michaella Sektnan at OSU was her co-author.

The report builds on Pratt’s 2019 comprehensive look at Oregon child care, which showed a similar landscape. All 36 counties were child care deserts for the 0-2 age group, while 25 counties were deserts for kids ages 3-5.

The biennial reports are funded via the state’s Early Learning Division as part of the Oregon Child Care Research Partnership with the purpose of informing state policymakers on the current status of Oregon’s child care supply, particularly the dearth of options for infants and toddlers and the role played by publicly funded programs in filling those gaps, especially in rural areas.

The new report found that while the state’s total amount of state-licensed child care increased by 588 slots from 2018-2020, and the estimated number of children under the age of 5 declined by about 13,000, statewide, Oregon’s child care supply remains limited. Twenty-five of Oregon’s 36 counties are also deserts for preschool kids ages 3-5, and for infants and toddlers ages 0-2, half of Oregon’s counties qualify as “extreme” deserts, with, at most, one child care slot for every 10 children in that age group.

The numbers show public investment plays a key role in expanding the child care supply in Oregon. Between 2018 and 2020, increased state funding led to an additional 817 publicly funded child care slots across the state, part of the overall growth. Publicly funded slots now account for 19% of Oregon’s total child care supply.

“This report highlights why Oregon needs to continue to invest in child care and focus on strategies that build our supply of affordable, high-quality child care and ensure our existing programs are supported,” said Alyssa Chatterjee, Oregon’s acting learning system director in the Early Learning Division. “Many families are struggling to access high-quality child care, and we can’t wait to address the issue.”

The report culled data from various sources, including regulatory databases for licensing information on child care providers throughout the state, and Oregon’s Early Learning Division, which administers public programs such as Head Start, Preschool Promise and Baby Promise.

Researchers looked at data from March 2020, right before the pandemic hit, and found a continued decline in the number of small, home-based child care provider slots. This decline has largely driven the overall loss of child care slots, as large child care centers cannot fully make up for the lack of home-based slots.

Home-based providers play a critical role in Oregon’s child care supply, Pratt said, with many families seeking out home settings for more culturally responsive care for their children. But providers often struggle financially.

“It’s really hard to make it work business-wise, because providers do not make very much money for what they’re doing,” Pratt said. “It’s hard to get new people to come into the field and say ‘I want to be a small, home-based provider.’”

She said the new report is a good jumping-off point for bigger questions and deeper analysis, as the existence of child care slots is only one hurdle many families face.

“Child care slots can exist, but not be accessible for a whole host of reasons. When other research asks what those barriers are, the primary one is affordability,” she said.

Other barriers to access include a child care center’s hours of operation, which might not align with parents working night or weekend shifts; language and cultural compatibility; and finding care that meets the needs of children with delays or disabilities.

Oregon is working to expand access and availability of child care, with legislation like the Student Success Act directing more funding to early learning, and programs like Preschool Promise, which provide child care and education for kids at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

“While this report shows we still have a long way to go, I am encouraged that the critical role of child care is receiving more attention than before,” Chatterjee said. “There’s wide recognition that child care is something we all need to address together.”

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