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Oregon parents, advocates press lawmakers for more child care funding

A letter from Oregon’s Department of Early Learning and Care upended Natalie Kiyah’s life last spring.

Kiyah, at the time a pregnant mother of three young children, had received a stipend through the Employment Related Day Care program to help pay for child care. But her 2022 tax returns showed that her income exceeded the annual limit by about $2,000, and she lost the state aid.

Unable to come up with an extra $1,500 to $2,000 a month to keep her toddler in full-time care, and unable to work the same hours at her photography and marketing business without child care, Kiyah and her children moved into a shelter.

She was able to rejoin the child care program after about a month and a half and found a full-time job doing digital engagement with the Oregon Food Bank, where she works to make sure no Oregonians go hungry. The Employment Related Day Care program allows Kiyah to work – but more than 1,300 Oregon families are stuck on an indefinite waitlist and the state department that oversees the program warned lawmakers Thursday that the program could face a shortfall as high as $221 million by the end of the two-year budget cycle in 2025. In November, officials projected a shortfall of $123 million if the demand grew by 2% a month. 

Kiyah joined a couple dozen other parents and advocates outside the state Capitol in Salem on Thursday, Jan. 12, with her youngest strapped to her chest, to urge lawmakers to increase child care funding during the short legislative session that begins Feb. 5.

“I really want legislators to understand that access to affordable child care is so essential for folks like me, single moms or not, to be able to work to pay our rent and to buy food and put food on the table,” she said. “I really want lawmakers to understand that we’re not just these lazy people out here. We are working very hard, and access to affordable child care is incredibly important and life-changing.” 

As of December, nearly 16,200 low-income Oregon families had been accepted into the program, though fewer than 12,000 of those families have connected with providers and have children receiving care, according to a presentation given to a legislative committee. The state pays child care providers directly, with families paying an average copay of less than $10 per month. 

Families need to earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level – just less than $40,000 annually for a single parent with one child or $60,000 for a family of four. They can stay in the program until they earn more than 250% of the federal poverty level – about $58,000 for a single parent with one child or $85,000 for a family of four.

Some level of increased child care funding is likely during the session, but it’s not yet clear whether it will be enough. Gov. Tina Kotek called in November for allocating another $59 million to address the waitlist based on October caseloads. A spokeswoman said Kotek is reviewing new data before finishing the agency’s budget request.

Child care is competing with other critical needs, including housing and behavioral health, for a limited amount of state money. Advocates say lawmakers need to understand that child care is a major economic issue and deeply connected to other needs facing Oregon.

‘Key in everyone’s life’

Courtney Veronneau, senior political director for Family Forward, told the Capital Chronicle in a December interview that the pandemic highlighted how critical child care access was to a functioning economy. Survey results released last month by Portland State University found that more than 40% of parents quit a job, turned down a job offer or “greatly changed” their job because of difficulty finding child care. 

“It’s all connected,” Veronneau said. “And when people can’t get to work because they don’t have somewhere to put their kids, they can’t afford their housing and we just compound these like more deeply rooted problems.” 

Marchel Marcos, who oversees political policy, advocacy and civic engagement for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, didn’t qualify for Employment Related Day Care when her children were younger because at the time the state considered her abusive ex-partner to be a parent who could care for the children. She stayed in that relationship longer than she wanted to, until her children were in elementary school and she could afford her own housing. 

Now, families identified as domestic violence survivors are able to skip the waitlist for the child care program, which Marcos described as “amazing.” But that means other families end up staying on the waitlist longer, she noted. 

“If people don’t have access to child care, they can’t take a job sometimes, which then affects their ability to keep stable housing,” she said. “And that’s a cycle that a lot of us, especially single parents, have to live with every day, patching child care options together and finding work that we’re able to do that accommodates our schedules. It’s hard to get out of that cycle and get out of that rut unless there’s support. My experience is child care quotes have always been at least equal to or more expensive than the rent that I have to pay, and that’s not not going to work.” 

Lisa Ebony spent months living and working out of her car in southern Oregon with her five children. When she first lost her home in 2017, she was pregnant and had four kids ranging in age from 1 to 8, and she couldn’t find a job that would pay enough for housing and child care.

She delivered papers for the now-defunct Medford Mail Tribune, driving around from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. seven days a week with all the kids in the car. They lived in other precarious situations, including a remodeled school bus parked in a field, crowding illegally into one rented room and staying with family. About a year and a half ago, Ebony and her children were finally able to move into a permanent home.

Even if she could have afforded it, child care wasn’t an option when Ebony and her children were homeless – providers needed a proof of address and a regular schedule, and they weren’t available when she was working delivery shifts. Now she works from home and homeschools her children. 

When she talks to politicians about her experiences, they tell her about how inspiring her story is and praise her resilience. But Ebony said they’re missing the point. 

“I think what sometimes people miss about my story and all these other stories is that what happened to us initially to put us in a situation to understand firsthand why housing and child care are so important – not just connected, but why they’re so key in everyone’s life – is that the end of our story could be ‘I’m so grateful to be living in a state like Oregon, where I don’t have to worry about those things,’” she said. “We should not have stories like this anywhere in the United States, and I think that it’s embarrassing for the state of Oregon.” 

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