Parents of young children in Oregon face a tough financial paradox: They earn less than the national average, but pay more to raise their kids. This has been proven numerous times over the last decade in different studies—the most recent being an audit released in December by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, which found our state is home to some of the most expensive childcare in the nation. While Oregon’s median household income is roughly $50,000, childcare costs an average of $13,000 a year for an infant.
As any Oregonian who’s raising kids on this skimpy budget can tell you, there aren’t a lot of vacations, date nights, or other luxuries like say, fresh fruits and vegetables, in that equation.
Unfortunately, our state has done little in the way of providing universally available public programs and resources to alleviate the high cost of childcare or provide support for parents. This is particularly true for parents with children under five—the most expensive, exhausting, and simultaneously critical period of parenting. The programs Oregon does have in place reach a very small number of the low-income families who would qualify.
“Parents should be mad,” responds Bobbie Weber, a research associate at Oregon State University at the College of Public Health and Human Sciences who studies public programs for families. “They should be damn mad, and they should be demanding help.”
Weber thinks parents—not only in Oregon, but across the country—are unnecessarily suffering in silence.
“They don’t complain in the public sphere; they don’t tell their story,” she says. “There’s this idea that until kids go to public school, it’s [the parents’] problem. It’s really an American phenomenon.”
How could programs in Oregon improve? Here’s a snapshot of some of the more progressive family policies from states around the country:
Preschool: “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” President Obama said when asking Congress (for the second year in a row) to fund his Pre-k for All program and make high quality preschool available to every four-year-old in the country. Reams of research show that attending high quality preschool can significantly impact a child’s long-term social and emotional development, which in turn increases their chances of graduating high school, attending college, and becoming a valuable member of society. (Preschool also helps build reasoning skills, flexibility, cooperation, as well as the ability to delay gratification—skills many adults are still trying to master!)
While Congress still refuses to fund the program, many states and cities including San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle have kicked down additional money to provide universal preschool without federal help. San Antonio—a city close to Portland in size—funds a pre-k program with a budget of $38 million. Oklahoma is one of three states providing pre-k for nearly 100 percent of its four-year-olds.
Oregon, in contrast, ranks in the bottom fourth of states in terms of providing funded pre-school, according to the National Institute for Early Education.
Minnesota Awesomeness: Minnesota has made a clear commitment to the well being of its children by investing in an array of social programs benefiting families of all income levels. An example is its Early Childhood Family Education program, where parents pay a small fee on a sliding scale to attend a weekly parenting class. Led by parent educators, the classes include group therapy, free coffee, and the added bonus of childcare. Close to 100,000 parents a year attend.
Paid family leave: California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey all provide residents with paid family leave—including maternity leave. Workers can receive as much as 80 percent of their income while at home caring for their new family members.
And we’re just talking about the United States. Outside the country, there are even shinier benefits. Fifty weeks of paid parental leave in Canada! Thousands in cash payments just for having children in Australia!
But getting back to Oregon... why are we lacking when it comes to assisting our own families? To put it bluntly: We’re poor, we refuse to raise taxes, and we don’t vote for social programs.
“Our tax system is archaic,” says Weber. “A healthy tax system is a three-legged stool—income, property, and sales. But Oregon won’t pass a sales tax, and we cap our property taxes.”
As a result, our state just doesn’t have the revenue that other states have.
“We get what we pay for,” says Weber. “And that means low investment in children.”
What might it take to change this dynamic? Other states have funded pre-k programs through “sin taxes,” like lottery or tobacco.
“But before any politician is going to spend political capital and real money on such an investment,” says Weber, “they need to know that Oregonians want to see these kinds of programs in their state. That would take more public awareness and transparent conversations about the issues that matter to families and will ultimately benefit the next generation. Unlike retired people, gun-owners, or marijuana smokers, babies in Oregon can’t vote. We parents have to do it for them.”