The cost of child care in Oregon continues to rise even as wages in the state decline, according to a new report by an Oregon State University researcher.
The average annual cost of toddler care in a child care center in Oregon is now $11,064, up from $10,392 in 2011.
In all, the report said, child care costs increased 13 percent from 2004 to 2012 while household incomes declined 9 percent.
“Families struggle to provide children the experiences they want for them,” said Bobbie Weber, a faculty research associate at the Family Policy Program in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and author of the report, released Thursday. Weber issues a new report every two years on child care in Oregon.
Benton County is the third most expensive county in the state for child care, the report found. The median annual price of child care in the county is $11,940. By contrast, the average annual price of public university tuition in Oregon is $6,679. (Only Washington and Multnomah counties are more expensive.)
The median annual price of child care in Linn County is $7,680, the report said.
“In America, we tend to think that all of our children are in child care centers,” Weber said. “That just isn’t the case.”
In fact, survey findings show the majority of Oregonians rely on a parent, relative or close friend to care for their children. This is even the case for preschoolers (ages 3 to 4), which is the group with the highest rate of “organized care,” or care in a center or family child care home. More than 55 percent of those children are either at home with a parent or in an “informal” setting, such as with a relative or friend of the family.
The study found that Benton County had 10,291 children 12 and under in 2012. By contrast, Linn County had about twice as many — 20,216.
But the two counties had roughly the same number of slots available in child care centers: Linn County had 2,548 slots and Benton County had 2,447. Put another way, Benton County had 24 child care slots available for every 100 children and Linn County had 13.
The recession and the tough economics of the child care business may explain the increasing cost of child care, Weber said in an interview Thursday.
Child care centers typically must operate at or near capacity to be economically viable, Weber said, noting that many centers operate under fixed costs that don’t change regardless of the number of children enrolled. As family wages drop, parents often have no recourse but to buy less child care, which increases the economic pressure on the centers. Often, the centers then much charge more, resulting in a vicious circle.
Weber also noted that people are surprised to learn about the relatively low wages paid in the child care centers. It’s not unusual, she said, for workers in the centers to earn slightly more than minimum wage.
The study offers implications for public policy, Weber said, especially considering that Gov. John Kitzhaber has placed a priority on making sure students entering kindergarten are ready to learn – and that studies show that preschools are effective ways to help make that happen. (Weber is a member of Kitzhaber’s Early Learning Council, which has been tasked to design the most effective early-childhood system.)
For starters, Weber identified what she called “low-hanging fruit” — making sure that government fully funds programs such as Head Start and the Employment Related Day Care Program, which offers child care subsides for parents making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
“A lot more people are getting engaged and becoming aware of the struggles facing parents,” Weber said. “We are seeing increases in some of the programs that support children and families. It is likely that funds will be restored to the child care subsidy program and there will be an increase in Oregon Head Start Prekindergarten. Both programs enable low income families to access learning opportunities for their children.”
But Weber said the study also suggests the importance of home visiting programs, in which an educator visits a home and provides information and resources to the adult and child alike, as well as Play and Learn groups, or community-based settings for child providers and kids to come together and work with a trained educator.