Megan McMillan can afford to obtain day care for her two young sons — one 20 months old, the other 4 1/2 years old, with special needs — while she works from home in eastern Washington County as a software engineer.
But McMillan says she is a voice for others, many of them single mothers from racial and ethnic minorities, who are unable to speak up for their needs.
"Parents are quiet because we are too busy searching desperately for care, signing up for wait lists, managing where we are on those wait lists, crunching numbers to see how we are going to pay for preschool tuition," said McMillan, who has testified to a state legislative committee. "That is why you are not hearing from parents today — and I hope to be loud on their behalf.
"We can do better — and we have to do better."
Marchel Hirschfield is the political director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. She also is the mother of two boys, ages 5 and 9.
"I became an advocate for child care in my community because as a teen mother, and currently as a single parent, it has been impossible for me to find quality and culturally specific child care that I can afford," she said. "Without real investments in child care like the ones our members of Congress are proposing, our economic recovery will leave out those most historically harmed by our child care crisis."
Both spoke Friday, April 30, at a Southeast Portland event attended by three Oregon members of Congress, all Democrats. who have turned their attention to issues of child care availability, affordability and quality — and are in a position to act.
Trio from Congress
Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, has just teamed up with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to sponsor a 10-year, $700 billion plan for federal aid to establish networks of child care in the states.
"In the next few months, we have an uncommon opportunity for some common sense to prevail in Washington," he said. "We can pass legislation so that young people in Oregon and across the country can get access to high-quality and affordable care."
Though a follow-up families plan by President Joe Biden proposes a permanent expansion of the tax credit for child and dependent care — and sets a 7% cap for the lowest-income families to receive federal child-care subsidies — Wyden said his legislation would focus on bolstering the availability of care through centers and homes. One estimate pegs the number of closures around 25% since the pandemic more than a year ago.
"For too long, the focus was on demand," Wyden said. "But if we do not increase supply, everything else is uphill."
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, is a leading voice for child care, having set up her own advisory panel on the issue. She said the current system was broken even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced many day care centers and homes to curtail the number of children they see — or even close down entirely.
"It wasn't working before because child care was too hard to find, and if it could be found, it was too expensive," she said. "Child-care providers often were making poverty-level minimum wages and could not afford child care even for their own children. So the system was broken before.
"The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated those challenges. That's why we need investment. It is not a problem that is going to solve itself."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland, who sits on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said this is the right time for child care to come to the forefront.
Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery plan, which Congress passed and Biden signed March 11, provides $39 billion in aid for child care. Oregon's share is estimated at $400 million.
The plan also expands for one year a child tax credit, subtracted directly from taxes owed and fully refundable even if a household owes no taxes. The credit goes from $2,000 to $3,600 annually for each child under age 6, and to $3,000 for those ages 6 to 18. Starting in July, the Internal Revenue Service will convert the credit into payments. Biden, in his follow-up plan for families that he released April 28, proposes to extend that credit through 2025.
"It is time to make the investment in the men and women who provide this care for our precious children," Blumenauer said.
Pay now or pay later
The event took place at the Southeast Portland location of Escuela Viva, a preschool program that currently serves 80 families. It also has a location in Kenton in North Portland.
Owner Angie Garcia said the prepandemic number at the Southeast Portland location was 100 families.
"The recession and pandemic have made it abundantly clear that having a system of care that is dependent solely on a family's ability to pay makes every one of us vulnerable," Garcia said. "Parents cannot afford care, and providers cannot afford to remain open."
Anticipating other measures Biden has proposed, such as universal preschool for two years modeled on Head Start — although that 1960s-era federal program for low-income families would remain — and a federal program for paid family leave, Andrea Paluso called on state lawmakers to pass legislation to put child care and early learning programs under a single agency. They are now split between the Human Services and Education departments. House Bill 3073 is pending in the Legislature's joint budget committee.
Paluso is the executive director of Family Forward Oregon, which has advocated for child and family needs. She said federal spending on those needs is just as important as Biden's proposed spending on public works.
"Our country cannot invest in physical infrastructure but leave child care behind," she said. "If we do, we risk investing in a recovery that passes too many women by. They cannot work, or stay at work, if they do not have child care."
Bonamici said such spending now will save on future spending to offset the effects of poverty, crime and lack of education.
"That investment now for the future of our children is dollars well spent," she said. "If our children get a good start in life — if they actually do better in our public school system — we spend less on future services, on education, on support."
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