In September 2019, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) released a comprehensive study on Montana’s early childhood system, including recommendations on ways to better provide affordable, quality early childhood care and education. DPHHS conducted this needs assessment in conjunction with a federal grant that the state received to look at and improve its early childhood system.
The needs assessment, conducted by an independent consultant, is a whopping 143 pages, rich with data on how families are (or are not) accessing child care in Montana and provides 85 recommendations to the state on ways to improve our early childhood education system.
First, let’s set the stage with some pretty sobering numbers on what families are grappling with when it comes to accessing affordable and quality child care.
- Fifty-eight percent of children under the age of six in two-parent households have both parents working, and 78 percent of children in one-parent households have that parent working. In short, most kids have working parents and they need quality child care options that they can afford.
- One in five Montana families with children younger than five are living at or near poverty, putting into perspective how many families are struggling to balance work at low wages while also ensuring their children are safe and learning.
- Eleven percent of Montana children under the age of five are American Indian, a growing demographic in both rural and urban communities.
Now, let’s talk about our current child care system.
- Right now, our existing child care system is equipped to serve less than half (44 percent) of the Montana children currently needing child care. This level of service varies among communities, with many rural areas lacking even one licensed child care provider.
- Lack of availability of infant care is widespread as only a third of infants and toddlers currently needing care can be served by the existing licensed capacity.
- Over the past decade, Montana has experienced a net loss in the number of child care providers over the past decade, with the number of closures outpacing new programs opening. Factors include challenges in retaining staff, finding adequate and affordable physical space, and the complexity and requirements tied to licensure.
- American Indian families face even greater barriers to accessing child care. In regions with higher American Indian populations, lack of child care providers, specifically those who are culturally competent and fluent in tribal nation languages, results in just one in four children in counties with high American Indian populations accessing child care through licensed providers. (We should note that this analysis does not factor in Tribal Head Start programs that are not licensed through the state. So additional American Indian children are receiving quality care and education beyond this analysis, but even then, the data shows that a lot of families are struggling to find care.)
- Among families that are income-eligible to receive federal child care subsidies, only a quarter of those children are actually receiving subsidies. And because Montana’s eligibility level is lower than the federal allowable level, thousands more children in Montana are unable to access support for quality care.
What can Montana do to begin to address the growing issues for working families struggling to find quality child care and education? We will highlight some of the many recommendations from the needs assessment in tomorrow’s blog.