Gazette opinion: Montana’s stake in quality child care

Gazette opinion: Montana’s stake in quality child care

Billings Gazette – October 6, 2016

Child care is the single largest monthly expense for many working parents in Montana. With the labor market tightening in the Billings area, quality child care is a growing concern for parents and employers.

The average cost of licensed daycare for a 4-year-old whose parents work full time is $7,900 a year, according to a report released last month by the Montana Budget and Policy Center. For infants, the annual cost is about $9,000.

For a single mother working full time for minimum wage, the cost of care for one child would be 47 percent of her total income. Quality child care is simply unaffordable for low-paid workers, and for many middle income workers, especially if they have two or more children.

Montana, like other states, uses federal funds to provide daycare scholarships to children of low-wage workers. However, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s estimate, Montana’s Best Beginnings Scholarship Program served only 14 percent of eligible children in 2014.

“There are lots of barriers,” said Heather O’Loughlin of the Helena-based policy center. For example:

  • Applications and documentation requirements are burdensome.
  • Employers are required to fill out forms.
  • Scholarships pay less than what child care providers usually charge, and the providers may require parents to pay the difference — in addition to the monthly copay they must make to qualify to receive the scholarship.
  • If families have income even slightly over 150 percent of poverty ($30,240 a year for a family of three), they don’t qualify for any child care scholarship.

Those who can’t afford licensed child care, may not be able to work. If they don’t have a relative or friend to be a safe, reliable caregiver, parents may use lower quality babysitting arrangements.

Parents need to work to support their families. About 20 percent of Montana families with children under age 5 live in poverty. The report estimates that 7,500 Montana families cannot afford child care on their own yet cannot qualify for assistance through Best Beginnings.

“For a two-parent family with median earnings ($74,340), the average cost of full-time care for two children is over $1,300 a month,” the policy center reported. For such a family in Montana, monthly child care expenses exceed monthly costs for housing, food, transportation or college tuition.

Unfunded mandate

Nationwide, the number of children receiving government-funded child care scholarships and federal spending on child care sunk to a 12-year low in 2014, according to CLASP, a Washington, D.C., anti-poverty organization. In 2014, the latest year for which CLASP had information, Montana spent just under $25 million on child care, about $1 million less than in 2013. About $4 million of that total was state money, the rest was federal.

The 2015 Legislature didn’t fund the 2 percent increase in state child care spending requested in Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget, O’Loughlin noted. But lawmakers agreed to appropriate $2.4 million in one-time money for the biennium for Stars to Quality, a voluntary rating program that offers financial incentives for child care providers to improve their service.

While spending on care is trending down, costs to implement new requirements of the federal child care program are estimated to run into hundreds of millions nationwide. Congress created those requirements in 2014, but isn’t fully funding them, according to CLASP.

Simplify enrollment

At the state level, the governor and the Department of Public Health and Human Services need to make the process of obtaining child care scholarship easier for working parents and employers.

If federal rule or law changes are needed, Montana’s congressional delegation must work with state leaders. The implementation costs attributed to the new federal child care law are counter-productive. There must be ways to channel more money to care, rather than imposing unfunded implementation mandates on states.

Nearly 60 percent of Montana families have two parents in the workforce, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center. U.S. employers lose an estimated $4 billion annually because of employees missing work to care for their children. Having access to reliable, high-quality child care, reduces the need for parents to take time off work. Safe, developmentally appropriate child care activities help prepare kids for success in school and life.

Child care doesn’t make front page news often, but should be on the agenda for state and federal policymakers.

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