Report highlights child care shortages in Montana

NBC Montana

MISSOULA, Mont. — Missoula mother of four Makayla Jara knows the struggle of finding child care in Montana. She started a local Facebook group years ago when she needed help, and now, with 2,300 members, it helps connect others to resources.

“I probably get 10 to 15 new parents asking to join or joining every single day, and most of the time they join they make a post that they’re needing child care,” Jara said. “I probably get 15 posts a day of people looking for child care, so it’s — I definitely know, it’s something that is very, very needed.”

A first-of-its-kind report for the state of Montana, done by Montana Kids Count with the Montana Budget and Policy Center, shows just what parents are up against in the state when it comes to finding quality and affordable child care, with the added challenges the pandemic brought.

“Women with young children have been greatly impacted by the pandemic, and you know child care was already unaffordable before people started struggling with, you know, potentially lost jobs or reduced hours. It is another layer, and it’s only become worse,” said Kids Count coordinator Xanna Burg.

The report shows shocking statistics and shortages, including that six Montana counties don’t have any licensed child care businesses: Carter, Fallon, Golden Valley, Petroleum, Treasure and Wibaux.

It says child care in Montana averages $9,518 per year for infant care and $8,365 for 4-year-old care, costing more than in-state tuition at the University of Montana or Montana State.

The Kids Count findings also showed financial challenges facing child care workers, showing the median wage was $10.99 per hour in 2020. The report says that would put a full-time employee at $22,900 per year, barely above the poverty line for a family of three.

The data release shows for every three Montana kids under the age of 6, there’s only one licensed slot available. An interactive data dashboard shows the number of licensed facilities by county, while also displaying capacity. You can also see the estimated potential shortfall by county.

In Missoula County for instance, it shows a total demand of 7,201 kids 5 and under, with a licensed capacity of 3,225. For the state, the dashboard shows a total 0-5 demand of 74,016, with licensed capacity at 22,531.

“I’m actually going through it right now to try to find summer care for my two older kiddos. it’s so difficult, especially for infants,” Jara said, going on to say she’s called a few places that have waiting lists for more than a year out.

Burg says Montana received more than $200 million in federal relief money in 2020 and 2021, specifically for child care and early childhood education. The report makes recommendations for how to use that money to help with access, quality and affordability.

One of those bullet points includes prioritizing grants to providers in rural areas and high poverty areas, providers that serve historically marginalized communities like children of color and also providers that offer infant and toddler child care or nontraditional hours of service.

It also recommends providing grants to help with start-up costs for new providers that will also help in recruiting staff members, training and paying for licensing costs. The recommendations include increasing child care worker pay, among others.

Recommendations include putting more funds toward expanding Head Start programs, an evidence-based child care program that served 5,755 children in Montana in 2019. The report shows tribal Head Start programs provided care for 55% of kids under the age of 6 with all parents working who live on one of Montana’s American Indian reservations.

There’s individual financial help available through the Best Beginnings Child Care Scholarship, with data showing more families could be benefiting from scholarships than are currently participating. The program provides money for child care for families that meet the income eligibility requirements, which is less than $40,626 per year for a family of three.

The report shows more than 7,000 Montana kids received a Best Beginnings scholarship in 2020, but 30,000 children are eligible.

You can see the full report here.