Rural Oregon is facing a difficult post-COVID economic recovery. The $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus relief package will undoubtedly help, but without addressing some long-standing barriers to economic development, we will not grow and thrive.

The lack of child care is one of those barriers. We live in a child care desert, where the number of available slots is a fraction of the need.

Without adequate and affordable child care options for children younger than age 5, a laundry list of problems arises:

• Parents (women, mostly) who want to work or attend school may need to drop out of the workforce or college, harming their family’s long-term economic future.

• Employers trying to recruit and retain employees have limited options, as potential workers are not available.

• A “brain drain” ensues, as professionals leave rural Oregon to pursue their careers in areas with more child care options.

• Rural school districts suffer from diminishing student enrollment year after year, as young families move away.

• When there are few preschool options, many 5-year-olds are not ready to learn when they start kindergarten, which undermines their chances of future academic success.

A strong child care system is needed to solve these problems.

The Ford Family Foundation’s recent report, “Child Care in Rural Oregon,” charts a path to improve the quantity and quality of child care. Their five recommendations should be quickly enacted.

Their first recommendation is for the Oregon Department of Human Services to use data from surveys of child care providers across the state to accurately model the actual costs of providing child care, to calculate reimbursement rates that are fair across the state and don’t put rural areas at a disadvantage.

Second, do away with the state’s current system of paying more for child care in urban areas than is paid in rural areas, and permanently waive or significantly lower the copayments for low-income families who receive child-care assistance.

Third, recognize that both home-based child care providers and child care centers need consistent and reliable funding. They need to receive payments based on a child’s enrollment rather than their daily attendance.

Fourth, launch a statewide system to link child care provider networks so that administrative services such as bookkeeping and payroll can be shared by home-based child care and child-care centers across the state, lowering costs for all.

Fifth, make changes in Oregon’s child care regulations to allow small child care centers to be located in nonresidential settings, so they can be licensed as “Certified Family Child Care.” This would allow for mixed-age groups of up to 16 children in “microcenters” located in schools and other existing buildings.

These steps don’t solve the underlying problem causing the shortage of child care: This care is expensive to provide because of the high caregiver-to-child ratios needed for the safety of very young children, and is not subsidized by the government except for very low-income families. The brunt of the cost of child care is primarily borne by families. For many families, child care costs more than their mortgage, and can be as high as college tuition.

Ultimately, we as a nation need to face the fact that a child’s education does not start in kindergarten. It starts at birth, so the more tax dollars we spend on high-quality child care and education, the less we will spend on remedial services and social welfare systems, and the better off we will be in the long run.

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