The idea underlying Governor Kitzhaber’s Oregon Children’s Plan makes intuitive sense – invest in children early on and Oregon may reap long term benefits. Plan supporters tout the plan as an example of investing substantial resources in early childhood development activities. One problem is that the Children’s Plan gives short shrift to improving child care and pre-school programs for Oregon’s children, and is undermined by cuts to programs that help children elsewhere in the budget.
Today child care is vitally important, especially for the working poor. Work does not necessarily mean a ticket out of poverty. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s the share of working families with children who were poor doubled. The most recent data shows that one out of seven working families with children was poor in the late 1990s. When you work and are still poor your child care options are limited, at best. The need for more child care options has been further exacerbated over the last 20 years as the number of hours Oregon households work increased. More working families with children are poor, and working families are working more hours.
The Oregon Children’s Plan boosts the pre-kindergarten program from 50 to only 60 percent of eligible children, well behind the goal of full participation by 2004. Although the Oregon Children’s Plan gives some attention to early child development, other parts of the Governor’s proposed budget would reduce the already meager assistance the State provides to help families pay for child care. The proposed Department of Human Services budget takes away the subsidy for 12-year old children and families with income between 160 and 185 percent of poverty, and increases the co-payment required for about 80 percent of the 12,500 families receiving child care assistance.
The DHS budget plan freezes the payments to child care providers at current levels, which are already about five years out of date. The State has done virtually nothing to increase the wages of child care providers to bring them up to par with K-12 or higher education teachers, even though research shows that early childhood development is critical to success later in school and in life. A small pilot project proposal by Stand For Children may be a good first step, but it is not likely to make the kind of significant impact in the quality of child care statewide that is needed.
Low pay for child care providers is not the only misplaced child care budget priority. Oregon will spend $5.9 million next biennium rewarding about two dozen employers for investing in child care assistance or information and referral services for their employees. Touted as an “incentive,” the tax credit appears to be merely a reward for employers who want to do the right thing, or who need to do the right thing to maintain a qualified workforce in today’s labor market. The small number of employers using the program over the years (ranging from 14 to 26), and the growth in the average size of the credit from $9,000 in 1990 to $140,000 in 1998, raise important questions about whether the credit is an incentive or a reward and whether it is a smart budget priority in Oregon’s tight fiscal situation. No one has shown that the program is benefiting those families most in need and that its an efficient use of tax dollars.
Quality child care providers do more than keep an eye on kids; they lead children in complex play, teach them to socialize comfortably with adults and other children, and develop language, physical, emotional, and cognitive skills. In short, they give children a good start in school and in life. Child care providers are an essential link in Oregon’s education system, but child care is a weak link of both the Governor’s Oregon Children’s Plan and legislators’ claims that education is their number one priority. If helping children during their critical, formative years is truly a goal, then the low pay of child care providers and child care affordability and accessibility, especially for low income working families, must be addressed and reflected in Oregon’s budget priorities.
Charles Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.