Montana’s child care assistance program offers low-income families access to affordable and quality child are, but some changes are needed.

Today’s blog is the third in a series of four blogs on child care in Montana.

Yesterday, we released a comprehensive report on child care. In our report, we examine the high costs of child care in Montana and how some low-income families can receive assistance to help cover these costs through Montana’s Best Beginnings Child Care Scholarship program. This program reimburses child care providers who care for families with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty line ($30,240 for a family of three) and who meet certain activity requirements.

In 2014, an average of 3,000 Montana families received Best Beginnings Scholarships each month, providing care to 4,600 children. Unfortunately, not all families can receive assistance. Over 34,000 low-income children are potentially eligible for Best Beginnings Scholarships, but coverage remains low across Montana. Only one out of seven eligible low-income children receive a Best Beginnings Scholarship (see map).

The highest proportion of children receiving assistance are in Yellowstone County, mostly because of the number of child care options in and around Billings. For example, 22 percent of eligible low-income children received Best Beginnings Scholarships in Area 7 (Yellowstone County), compared to only eight percent of eligible children in Area 1, which encompasses Lincoln, Flathead, and Glacier counties.

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There are several reasons why families are unable to access affordable and quality child care through the Best Beginnings Scholarship program, including the following:

  • Some families earn too much to qualify for Best Beginnings, but too little to afford child care on their own. Federal requirements allow states to set maximum income eligibility limits for their child care assistance programs. Montana’s Best Beginnings Scholarship program sets its eligibility limit lower than 33 states – at 150 percent of the federal poverty line ($30,240 for a family of three). As a result, 7,500 families fall into this gap, earning too much to qualify for child care assistance, but too little to afford child care on their own. Montana could increase its income eligibility limit, which would provide an additional 30,000 children access to Best Beginnings Scholarships.
  • Best Beginnings Scholarship application processes and activity requirements limit access. Montana families can apply for Best Beginnings Scholarships online or at a local Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agencies. While CCR&R staff help individuals apply for assistance, workers must rely on their employers to verify employment and submit work schedules. This can be a challenge to get employers to comply and if they don’t, parents are disqualified through no fault of their own. Additionally, single parents must work through an additional process to prove that they either receive regular child support payments or provide evidence for why they do not. This process adds another complexity to the application process and can be very challenging for families. The state should consider changes to the application process that take into account the fact that parents are asked to provide documents that are often not in their control.

Additionally, work requirements can keep parents from receiving consistent support. When an employer cuts back on hours, it can cause parents to become ineligible even if they did nothing wrong. Further, the Best Beginnings program does not recognize individuals who are actively looking for work as an acceptable “activity requirement.” Parents looking for work need access to child care so that they can concentrate on preparing for and attending interviews that land them a stable job. The Best Beginnings Scholarship program should consider changing its activity requirements in ways that are flexible and take into consideration the fact that low-wage workers’ schedules are often not in their control. Also, parents looking for work should be able to apply for child care assistance.

  • Stagnant funding makes it difficult for the state to adequately reimburse child care providers, which shifts additional costs onto low-income families. Over the past several years, federal funding for state child care assistance programs has stagnated and state investments cannot fully support programs. As a result, the Best Beginnings Scholarship program cannot reimburse child care providers at an adequate rate. When this happens, child care providers either shift additional costs onto families they serve, including Best Beginnings families, or close their doors to Best Beginnings families altogether. Alternatively, when Best Beginnings families stand to face additional costs, they may choose to look for cheaper and lower-quality care. Significant investments are needed to ensure that Montana’s child care assistance program reimburses child care providers fairly, so they are not forced to shift costs onto low-income families.

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