It's no secret that Oregon is in desperate need of bolstered childcare.
Every single county in the Beaver State was deemed a childcare desert for infants and toddlers in a 2012 Oregon State University report, long before COVID-19 put the issue on the forefront. Childcare providers and advocates say the problem has only worsened in recent years.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici reiterated this point during her quarterly Oregon Child Care Advisory Board meeting on Monday, Dec. 13.
"I want to say that it's finally getting the attention it needs and deserves: the issue of affordable accessible childcare," she said. "And we know it was a challenge even before the pandemic, and the pandemic exacerbated it.
"I've been working to deliver this sort of long overdue investment in both providers and in affordable access."
The Build Back Better Act is designed to improve the nation's "care economy," as proponents put it.
President Joe Biden's signature legislation includes a historic investment of nearly $400 billion, which is intended to both lower the cost of childcare and secure universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds in the United States.
Today, only about 23% of Oregon children in that age range have access to publicly funded preschool, according to the bill's fact sheet. Those who don't have access to a publicly funded program are forced to shell out about $8,600 per year for private preschool, according to whitehouse.gov.
The bill, while quite large, has been whittled down from what was initially proposed, with possibly more changes ahead in the Senate.
Senators in Capitol Hill have two weeks left to pass the bill and meet their self-imposed Christmas deadline. It's unclear whether they will, or whether Democrats will have the votes. Moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have stopped short of saying they'll vote for it, with Manchin expressing concerns about adding to the national debt.
Republicans point to a Congressional Budget Office report they requested, which said Friday, Dec. 10, that the bill would add $3 trillion to the deficit. Democrats say that score is inaccurate and isn't based on the current version of the bill.
"Once (Build Back Better) is fully implemented, and of course it still needs to pass the Senate, it will make sure that more than 13 million young children are eligible for the (childcare) assistance," said Bonamici. "The intent is to make sure that it's not only affordable and accessible, but also high-quality."
Higher wages for childcare workers is a priority as well, Bonamici said.
"Under Build Back Better, workers in childcare and universal pre-K will be paid commensurate to elementary school educators with similar qualifications," she said.
But some childcare and labor advocates say that the bill falls short for family, friend and neighbor care providers, who made up at least 30% of childcare providers long before the pandemic, according to an Oregon State University Support.
Family, friend and neighbor care typically refers to home-based care that is not regulated.
"There's a real continued ambivalence about the role for friend/family/neighbor providers in this larger system," said Andrea Paluso, executive director of advocacy group Family Forward Oregon.
This "ambivalence," shows up in multiple ways. An unregulated workforce, for example, is not going to reap the same benefits in better wages the same way the rest of the childcare workforce will benefit.
This also appears in Build Back Better, which has a requirement that childcare providers be licensed.
"I'm really worried about this new requirement that all providers be licensed, and the barriers that that's going to create for FFM providers to participate in the system," Paluso said, "particularly for the families that are already using FFM providers that are already struggling the most to participate in this system, who operate in languages other than English or have technology challenges and gaps."
Bonamici noted that Build Back Better does include "technical assistance" for licensing processes, but she also agreed that when implementing standards in Oregon, it will be prudent to ensure good providers aren't lost due to new licensing requirements.
"Of course, we all want children to be safe and facilities to be safe, but we have to really keep an eye on that," she said.
As the Senate fast approaches its Christmas deadline, Bonamici encourages citizens to communicate with their members of Congress to push for the passage of the bill.
"It's really helpful to let our senators know, but also, if you are networked with people in other states, just emphasizing the importance of these investments," she said.
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