Montana Public Radio

As Montanans Struggle To Access Affordable Child Care, Officials Can’t Agree On Solutions

May 17, 2021

Child care isn’t easy to find or pay for in Montana. While research shows the lack of affordable child care options has major impacts on the state’s economy and workforce, Montana lawmakers came out of the 2021 legislative session with fundamental disagreements about how to address the problem.

Mornings for Rose and George in their sunny, toy-cluttered two-bedroom apartment in the Gallatin Valley are full of highs and lows.

George spends mornings with his mom because Rose works a commercial cleaning job at night. It’s flexible, which is important to a single parent like Rose. She can add shifts when money’s tight and work around daytime appointments.

But most child care providers are only open during regular business hours. 

“Honestly, there’s not a lot of those kinds of jobs, unless you work in a fancy office building or at a hospital, you’re not going to get those kinds of hours,” Rose says.

Rose’s struggle to pay for and find child care in Montana isn’t unique. According to a Montana Department of Labor and Industry report from last November, 53% of children in the state who need out-of-home care won’t find a spot at a licensed child care facility. 

Rose and George are survivors of domestic violence, so they’re being identified by their middle names in this story. After fleeing their previous home in Oregon, they now rely on public assistance to pay rent, buy food and make ends meet. 

“I count pennies. I never thought I’d be put in that position, but you know how most people, when they’re like, ‘do you want your penny,’ and most people are like, ah nah. I’m like, yes, I want my penny,” Rose says.

Rose qualifies for a state grant to help pay for child care, but she can’t use it for the babysitter she’s hired. It can only be used to pay certified providers.

“There’s just, there’s so many complications all the time. I don’t get a break.”

A Bureau of Business and Economic Research study found that of the Montana parents who struggle to find child care, 22% ended up turning down a job offer, 15% changed from full-time to part-time and 12% quit their jobs due to the challenge.

Montana’s governor and Republican-majority state Legislature focused on economic development during the 2021 session by cutting taxes and business regulations. GOP leaders say if businesses succeed and people have more money in their pockets, it’ll help parents afford child care. 

But child care advocates, like Tori Sproles, say the state needs to take a more direct approach.

“Right now, I think the biggest thing for providers is just the economic development piece.”

Sproles, provider services coordinator at the Bozeman area Child Care Connections, says Montana has been a “child care desert” for a long time. Child Care Connections is a Montana-based nonprofit funded in part by the state health department that offers support to parents and providers seeking and running child care businesses.

Sproles says a major factor contributing to the lack of available child care is the financial and emotional strain providers face.

“You know, we are expected as early childhood professionals to uphold the same types of standards as even an elementary school teacher. However, we’re not making even close the wages of public school teachers.”

Sproles says she had hoped that lawmakers would address homeowners associations’ barriers for child care providers operating in residential areas, and insurance laws that make business complicated. But those proposals didn’t come to fruition. 

Research shows the quality of a child’s early care and education can make a world of difference, from how well they perform in school to how much money they make as an adult. 

Sproles says child care pays dividends when kids grow up, and Montanans don't just need more child care facilities, they need higher quality care for their kids. 

“We can have slots, but if we’re not paying our child care providers, you know, enough, what’s the balance there?” 

Sproles says providers can’t charge more because parents can’t pay more.

The state labor department cites a study from BBER that found average annual cost of infant care in Montana is nearly $13,000 — twice the cost of in-state college tuition.

The state labor department cites a study from BBER that found that the average annual cost of infant care in Montana is nearly $13,000 — twice the cost of in-state college tuition. 

Lawmakers brought several bills during the 2021 legislative session aimed at making child care more accessible, including creating a grant program for providers and expanding eligibility for the state’s child care scholarship program. None of those bills advanced. 

Rep. Alice Buckley, a Democrat from Bozeman, says she’s surprised more policy makers aren’t talking about the child care issue. 

“We’ve spent all session thinking about what economic development looks like in this state and how we’re going to chart our course forward from here, what it looks like to get Montana back to work. And I think, that feels really exciting to me, I think it feels exciting to everyone here in the building. And yeah, there’s this missing piece of child care.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed one of Buckley’s bills to allow candidates for public office to use campaign contributions for child care. 

Gianforte vetoed her proposal to use private dollars to create a task force focused on how child care impacts the workforce and how businesses can create child care facilities on site for employees. The bill had the backing of the Montana Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders.

Gianforte wrote in his veto letter that Montana has “never had more resources available” to address the child care issue. 

The administration points to $152 million the state received from recent federal stimulus packages that will go to child care for one-time equipment and infrastructure improvements, creating worksite child care facilities, licensing costs and employee training. 

Gianforte’s Budget Director Kurt Alme says, “There is substantial federal money coming through the Department of Health and Human Services that we’re already using to help with child care deserts and help to ensure that there’s affordable and accessible child care.”

Child care advocates say the federal funding helps. But Sarah Peterson, with Child Care Connections, says it’s not a long-term fix. 

“It will be something once that federal funding isn’t there anymore that we’ll have to fight for again, probably at our next session, to put that back into the state budget.”

While policy makers debate the best way to increase access to child care, data show major economic implications tied to the issue. 

A Bureau of Business and Economic Research study found that of the Montana parents who struggle to find child care, 22% ended up turning down a job offer, 15% changed from full-time to part-time and 12% quit their jobs due to the challenge. 

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Businesses with a predominantly female workforce were more likely to report a lack of affordable child care, and at least half reported an impact on recruitment and retention. That same research found Montana’s economy loses more than $230 million each year due to inadequate child care, families lose $145 million in lost wages and businesses lose $55 million from lower worker productivity. 

Mike Halligan is a former state Democratic lawmaker and now executive director of the Washington Companies, a Missoula-based corporation that employs roughly 1,800 people. 

He testified in favor of Buckley’s bill to study child care in the workplace. He says the tax cuts Republicans are rolling out are a good start, but it’s not enough. 

“The economic tax incentives in order to reopen the economy, you know, is not the full answer if you’re gonna be looking at a long-term solution.”

Republicans in the 67th Legislature championed a policy to increase the number of children providers can care for, from one caretaker per six kids to one caretaker per eight kids for at-home daycare settings. 

Critics say this isn’t the right approach because it could decrease the quality of child care provided and lead to more provider burnout. 

For Gov. Gianforte, it comes down to creating more jobs across the board in Montana. 

“A large portion of our budget was focused on creating more trades scholarships to, again, get people the skills so they can earn more so they can afford things like child care.”

Rob Grunewald is an economist with the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis, which helped with the state labor department study on child care last fall. He says access to child care often needs to come before a job search. 

“Supporting access to quality child care can help those families attain employment and earn more and work up that income ladder.”

Grunewald says the lack of child care has disproportionate effects. 

“While inadequate child care affects a broad range of Montanans, low-income and American Indian households carry the heaviest burden when compared to higher-income and white households.” 

Rose, the single mom in the Gallatin Valley, has struggled to find the right person to care for her son, George. 

George is not a typical kid. He’s experienced trauma and has behavioral issues because of it. Rose was recently advised by a pediatrician to have George tested for Autism Spectrum Disorder. He needs patience and understanding. 

Rose doesn’t just want someone to look after him. She wants someone who will treat her kid like she does. 

“You will do anything, no matter what it is, to make this little baby smile and be safe and protected and to have everything that they need to grow up and enjoy being a child. To grow up to be a healthy, balanced and wonderful adult.”

Rose continues juggling work, child care and the stress of providing for her family on her own. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misattributed the source of data on Montana parents who struggle to find child care. Some of the data were published by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, not the state labor department.