Near the end of a meeting with local leaders in early childhood education, U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici asked her audience to keep her in the loop with stories and experiences of how families struggle to afford childcare in Oregon.
On Friday, Bonamici, a democrat who represents Washington County in Oregon's 1st Congressional District, toured Community Action, a Hillsboro Head Start center, before sitting down with representatives of various social programs from across Washington County.
"As I look at the change in our demographics in our workforce, you can see why there's a real need for affordable childcare," Bonamici said after the meeting. "I mentioned that I worked for (Legal Aid of Oregon). Those stories of helping low income families, you realize the policies affect the families. I know, from what I've read and what I've seen, that when families have affordable childcare, they are more likely to be successful."
Bonamici toured the center and sat down with local boots-on-the-ground leaders on Monday to get a better idea of the real-world challenges families face, she said. Bonamici took a career break when her own children were younger and said she was "fortunate" not to have needed childcare.
"I was an at-home mom, but not everyone has that opportunity," she said. "I certainly understand and appreciate that."
Jane Houge, Head Start Director, spoke several times of "patchwork childcare," in which low-income families need to utilize several childcare options to keep a job. The high cost of childcare is part of the issue, but Head Start leaders said the organization simply doesn't have the space to serve the need in Washington County.
Affordable childcare has long been an issue for Bonamici, she said. In 2015, the democrat called for universal access to affordable childcare, citing Oregon as the fourth-most expensive state in the nation for infant care.
Another approach has been to help reimburse centers that feed students during the day. Bonamici and Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York introduced the Early Childhood Nutrition Act in March, which would cut down on paperwork for childcare centers and allow centers to provide a late-afternoon meal to kids who stay for more than eight hours.
In addition, the bill would allow more use of digital record keeping and allow centers to seek low-income certification every six months instead of once each month. That bill is still in committee.
There are other struggles to childcare than feeding children, Houge said. Some families fear accessing services will make them a target of immigration officials.
Designing child care facilities can be expensive. Community Action has sinks at knee height for small children, along with other toddler-specific features. Some age groups need a large amount of space to move and play.
Hogue said the industry also struggles to find enough qualified teachers, despite competitive salary and benefits.
Bonamici said that the law would need to find a balance between keeping costs low for families, while also increasing the salary of teachers in early childhood education.
Bonamici said Friday's conversation would help her reach out to other legislators and help connect her to people who struggle with this issue every day.
"I can see that investing in children is a good investment," she said. "I (have been asking) for stories about how families are affected so I can use those to inform my work."