As many of us working parents come to grips with being full-time teachers and caregivers to our children, the enormous value of this kind of labor comes into sharp relief. Yet, our valuation of this essential labor — now and in more normal circumstances — never seems to translate to higher compensation for teachers, nannies, and childcare providers. This labor sector is among the lowest paid and most precariously employed. The majority of care workers are women, most of whom are women of color. At their wage level, few childcare providers can afford the very services they provide to others for their own children. Meanwhile, quality childcare for other working families is likewise unaffordable, while full-time childcare can cost as much as two-thirds of a family’s income. Oregon is among more than thirty states where childcare costs more than college tuition. By some measures, Oregon ranks as the third least affordable state in the country for childcare.
Adding to high costs is a generalized lack of quality childcare options. A 2019 study by OSU researchers classified Oregon as a “childcare desert,” meaning at least three children are vying for each open daycare slot. Here in Corvallis, it’s no secret that most families sit on long waiting lists. In the meantime, some working parents rely on patchwork care strategies that often result in professional compromises, lower pay, and less access to benefits offered to full-time employees. These trade-offs disproportionately affect women in the workforce. Lack of access to affordable and quality childcare can also result in long-term negative effects on child development and education. This was the foreboding landscape of childcare before COVID-19.
In recent weeks, several area daycare centers have closed their doors permanently. This reality is devastating for both business owners and local families. The care slots lost as a result of these closures cannot be easily recouped without significant local, state, and federal investment. As noted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, recently-released guidelines for childcare resumption will likely force the closure of additional centers that are unable to survive in the face of smaller enrollments and higher sanitation costs. Whenever life, work, and school resume here, families will begin the desperate search for local care options and quickly find fewer options and longer waiting lists. What was previously called a “childcare desert” may become an even more barren landscape.
Sadly, it is unsurprising that a sector long-assumed to be “women’s work” or “unskilled labor” receives little priority in fiscal and political decision-making. The reality is that quality childcare is skilled work, informed by the fields of child development and early childhood education. Yet the general consensus seems to be that childcare is not a public concern, but a problem for individual working families to resolve privately. Many working parents do shoulder the stress of finding and affording childcare in the shadows. They show up to their jobs and maintain productivity despite their anxieties about leaving their children or elders with suboptimal or unaffordable caregivers. While working parents and low-paid care workers struggle, employers at the top of the chain continue to reap profits directly from their labors. Of course, this economic imbalance is not a new dilemma, it’s simply one made more acute in the context of COVID-19. Recent opinion pieces by Melinda Gates and Jennifer Rubin have thoughtfully underscored the critical symbiosis between care labor and economic recovery in this moment.
Childcare will likely fall once again to the bottom of the list of priorities in the wake of COVID-19. That means now is the time to put our policymakers’ feet to the fire. In the absence of a robust federal response, local leaders must listen to their communities’ care needs and retool the economy in an equitable and sustainable way. As we wade through Phase One in the re-opening process, large employers, like Corvallis 509J, Hewlett-Packard, OSU, and Samaritan Health, must join forces and lead the way to address the critical gaps in our local care industry.
As an historian, I find that the past offers many lessons for navigating the present. Fortunately, Oregon history provides some guidance and inspiration for tackling the current childcare gaps in our area and across the state. During WWII, Kaiser West Coast Shipyards in Portland innovated on-site childcare for their laborers. These Child Service Centers provided round-the-clock, subsidized care by highly-trained staff and offered a tailored curriculum. The project received backing from First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and became a foundational model for childcare provision in the United States. At the time, officials estimated that the care centers allowed mothers to work almost two million hours in the shipyards. The acknowledgement of working families’ value to the wartime economy and the political will to care for the nation’s youngest generations put Oregon on the map, creating a watershed moment in the evolution of modern childcare.
Today, we are “at war” with a different enemy and need an equally imaginative and robust response. First, large employers need to envision the lack of childcare as a common concern. Next, they should commit to share the cost and responsibility of addressing childcare shortages in our area. With an alliance, they can use their collective voice to lobby for federal and state support. Finally, following in Kaiser’s footsteps, they need to do what they do best: innovate and bring their unique expertise to bear on solving this long standing problem.
There are few certainties during a pandemic, but all signals point to childcare — and care labor more generally — as an imperiled industry that requires our full attention now. Taking a note from Oregon’s past, let’s build a future in which our state and local “childcare desert” looks more like an oasis.
Cari S. Maes is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.