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Washington County study reveals extent of child care difficulties and possible solutions

Washington County Public Health contracted with ECONorthwest to conduct an analysis of current infrastructure and projected workforce needs to expand early learning and care for infants and children through age five.
Media release

Washington County Public Health, in partnership with Community Action Organization and United Way of the Columbia Willamette, contracted with ECONorthwest to conduct an analysis of current infrastructure and projected workforce needs to expand early learning and care for infants and children through age five. The study was funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

“Anyone in Washington County who needs child care for their young children will not be surprised to hear there are not enough slots available and that child care is expensive,” according to Evan Weaver, Early Life and Learning program supervisor with Washington County Public Health. “Fortunately, this study also resulted in tangible steps we can take to improve the child care capacity issue in our county.”

According to the study, as of 2021, there were 23,979 child care slots – which includes all licensed child care and some license-exempt providers – and 39,000 children under the age of six living in Washington County. Existing capacity consists largely of licensed centers operating on traditional Monday to Friday schedules. Capacity during non-traditional hours is more often supported by home-based providers.

The study also confirmed that available care is too expensive for many households. Washington County has one of the highest costs of child care in the state. On average, a Washington County family with two children can expect to spend 19% of their income on child care.

Still, despite high costs to families, surveyed providers found it difficult to charge appropriate rates due to market conditions and subsidies.

Projected population growth of children under six

The number of children under the age of six in Washington County is expected to grow steadily over the next several years, with estimates climbing from 39,000 (2021) to 48,000 (2030).

Washington County will need to almost double its child care capacity for children ages zero through five to achieve a target of two slots for every three children by 2030. This expansion requires a large increase in the child care workforce, which would need to grow at about four times the rate projected by the Oregon Employment Department.

Potential solutions to address child care capacity issue

Child care capacity expansion will require a large increase in the child care workforce, more comprehensive support of existing providers, and a more robust child care navigation system for families.

"The study puts a spotlight on the challenges facing Washington County child care providers — challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Andrew Dyke, partner and senior economist with ECONorthwest. “While not a cure-all, our code review indicates that streamlining zoning and development processes could lower barriers to entry for new providers. At the same time, policy should encourage new capacity, whether from new providers or expansions of existing providers, that aligns with apparent mismatches in availability. Specifically, new capacity should focus on underserved geographies and gaps in care with specific characteristics, such as the provision of care outside standard working hours."

The report identifies several strategies that local jurisdictions could implement to help resolve barriers:

  • Update definitions and permitted use tables to align with the state’s definitions and requirements for child care facilities.
  • Remove conditional use processes (and other restrictions for early learning and care facilities) that conflict with state requirements.
  • Expand allowances for early learning and care beyond what the state requires.
  • Track development review times to identify inefficiencies and report more accurate review timelines.
  • Create or expand local technical assistance programs to help providers with facility design, navigating local permit processes, and/or locating opportunity spaces.
  • Waive development fees for nonprofit projects or projects that serve certain populations, such as low-income households.

What’s next?

Using ARPA dollars, the county is providing funding, business development training and technical assistance to providers from underrepresented communities.

Issues related to land use, zoning and regulatory barriers are complex, and work to address them is ongoing. Washington County will work collaboratively with municipalities, child care providers, the Child Care Resource and Referral team at Community Action Organization, Early Learning Washington County (partnership between Washington County Public Health’s Maternal Child and Family branch and the United Way of Columbia Willamette), and others to drive change in this area.

Learn more

When choosing how to invest ARPA dollars, Washington County leans on its values of centering equity, resilience, collaboration and good governance. For more information about ARPA investments and the guiding framework in Washington County, visit the county’s ARPA web page.

The full child care study report can be found on Washington County’s website. For more information, contact Evan Weaver at 503-846-4918.