Rising cost of child care

January 04, 2012 08:46 pm
OSU report: Child care prices on average increased 7 percent more than family incomes from 2004 to 2010

Maybe the best news in a recent report on child care in Oregon is that it doesn’t cost as much on the east side of the state as it does in other places.

Still, it’s expensive, and hits young parents —  especially those who can’t get on the list for a key assistance program offered by the state — right where it hurts.

“I sometimes wonder how those parents are managing,” said Jean Johnson of the La Grande office of Child Care Resource and Referral.

The report from Oregon State University says that while child care costs throughout the state have risen, wages have remained flat or increased only slightly over the past decade. It’s resulted in what researchers call “a crisis for families.”

The report, looking at child care in every Oregon county, says child care prices on average increased 7 percent more than family incomes from 2004 to 2010.

 And for single parents, the situation is more serious. Their child care prices increased 14 percent more than their incomes in the same period.

Counties on Oregon’s more populated west side are really feeling the pinch, according to the report. In Washington County, for example, the average cost of toddler care in a child care center is $10,400, some $4,000 more than the annual cost of college tuition.

On the east side, costs aren’t as high, though they’re still burdensome.  In Union County, toddler care costs $4,888 on average, while college tuition averages $6,790. In Wallowa County, cost of toddler care comes in at about about $2,788, with college tuition pegged at the same amount as in Union County.

The bottom line? Many young parents are struggling along on minimum wage incomes and spending a good part of their money on child care providers, either in informal or formal arrangements.

 Across Eastern Oregon, families using paid care are shelling out an average of $255 a month.

Johnson said that until a few years ago, Eastern Oregon child care costs were among the lowest in the nation, and remain comparatively low today. She also said that while costs have gone up locally, there hasn’t been a big, sudden spike in prices.

Both Johnson and Kathy Wadsworth of the Wallowa County Child Care Resource and Referral office in Enterprise said the child care issue is double-sided. The local child care providers struggle with costs, just as those seeking child care do.

“It’s expensive for parents, and it’s hard for providers to make a sufficient income,” Johnson said.

Wadsworth said Wallowa County providers — many of whom work on a part time or seasonal basis — haven’t raised their rates significantly the past six or seven years. She said providers’ earnings aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living.

But considering  what parents of young children in Eastern Oregon are likely to earn in a year’s time, child care still takes a big bite out of a budget. Annual income of a minimum wage worker is about $17,000.

“I would say most young parents are on fairly low incomes, and it’s a struggle to pay for care,” Johnson said.

She added that parents of infants and toddlers have an extra burden, because child care providers tend to charge more for kids under two.

Struggling parents look for financial help from the state, but there isn’t a lot available. Johnson said the number of programs aimed at helping with child care costs is small. The one people look to most is the Employment Related Day Care Program run by the Department of Human Resources.

But budget shortfalls the last couple of years have forced cuts to the program. As a cost-saver, the state decided to cap the number of participants at 9,000.

The result is that many do without help, even though they meet the program’s income guidelines.

“The cap means that many people who are eligible can’t get on it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that in Union County, there are about 130 licensed providers registered with her office, ranging from professional care center operators to people who routinely care for one or two children and grandparents who care for young family members and charge little or nothing.

The number of registered care providers in Union County stays about the same year-to-year. Then, too, any number of people in the community aren’t registered but help friends or family members with child care. The situation is the same in Wallowa County.

So people with children make the best arrangements they can. Every working parent hopes for high quality child care, placing children in care centers or pre-schools, but costs for those kind of arrangements are often too high.

“Paying for care is a huge challenge. There aren’t many funding options,” Johnson said.