HELENA — Across Montana, leaders say there’s a big gap between the demand for childcare and the available supply. During a meeting Tuesday, state lawmakers got a closer look at some of the ongoing challenges facing the childcare system.
“The childcare issue in Montana is very complex and is something that everyone at various levels are dealing with and grappling with – especially as it becomes more and more apparent the impact on our state and local economies,” said Caitlin Jensen, executive director for Zero to Five Montana, an advocacy organization that works to improve access to early childhood care and education.
The Economic Affairs Interim Committee spent Tuesday morning hearing from a variety of stakeholders, each highlighting different aspects of the childcare system.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry estimates licensed childcare capacity across the state only meets 43% of the demand. Many counties, particularly in rural Montana, are designated “childcare deserts,” meaning their capacity is less than a third of demand.
DLI also reported the results of a survey, showing 40% of businesses reported a lack of childcare made it hard to recruit or retain employees.
Leaders said two key challenges are squeezing childcare providers from both sides: Costs are too high for many families to afford, and wages remain low, leading to high worker turnover.
“A recent report that I read quoted, ‘Childcare is too expensive, and not expensive enough,’” said Xanna Burg, who leads the KIDS COUNT project, through the Montana Budget and Policy Center. “I thought that was a really insightful way to put it.”
Burg said a Montana family with one school-age child and one younger child might pay $12,800 a year for childcare – 15% of the median income in this state. She said providing childcare is labor-intensive and requires well-trained staff – but her report pointed to data showing the median wage for childcare professionals is $12.86 an hour, or about $26,700 a year.
“The turnover rate of childcare workers is extensive, and that is directly linked to the low wages in this industry,” said Amanda Frickle, political director for the Montana AFL-CIO. “For us to tackle this problem holistically, we have to think about how we keep people in this industry. If you don't have workers, if you don't have providers, we aren't going to be able to actually tackle this problem.”
Pandemic-era programs provided additional support for childcare businesses, but much of that funding is coming to an end.
Carrie Krepps, executive director of Florence Crittenton, said her organization used childcare stabilization grants to raise salaries for staff in their early childhood programs. However, as that money expired, she said they had to maintain those wages in order to keep their employees. Now, they’ve turned to fundraising to make up the difference.
“Probably 30%, 35% of our staff's wages have come from fundraising dollars,” Krepps said. “So while that's manageable for us, because we're a 120-year-old organization and have lived off of fundraising for quite some time, it's not necessarily sustainable – especially when we’re looking to increase by another four positions in order to open those other spots.”
State leaders say they’re currently working on studies intended to give them an updated picture of the true cost of child care. That information will go into revising the reimbursement rates for providers.
Leaders also want to see more data in the coming months on the effects of House Bill 648, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, and passed this legislative session. The bill expanded support through the Best Beginnings scholarship program, for lower-income Montanans needing help with childcare costs.
During Tuesday’s meeting, several people said they’ve heard stories from families who found their incomes rose above the eligibility threshold for childcare subsidies, their costs rose dramatically, and parents then decided to cut back their hours at work or leave their jobs altogether because of those costs.