Montanans Struggle to Access Affordable Child Care

Iris Shook, 4, sings while Hannah Ringer, 4, looks on during play time at Rhiannon Shook's early childhood care program in Bozeman. (AP Photo, Rachel Leathe)
Iris Shook, 4, sings while Hannah Ringer, 4, looks on during play time at Rhiannon Shook's early childhood care program in Bozeman. (AP Photo, Rachel Leathe)

Montana needs child care solutions. This statement is not a topic for debate, it is not a new fact, nor does it come as a shock to anyone. Montana has a serious issue with a lack of affordable child care. It is an issue that is affecting every business, every sector and every community regardless of size. Child care is a key factor in building a healthy economy and communities across the state are coming together to find solutions.

In the fall of 2020, Zero to Five Montana conducted a professionally administered survey of 600 randomly selected Montana voters about issues facing families with young children. This survey showed that 73% of Montanans are concerned that families are facing more financial stress and uncertainty, 75% of Montanans are concerned about parents not being able to work because of a lack of child care, and 81% of Montanans agreed that a quality early education experience is a good investment in their children and grandchildren. In addition, 58% of Montanans agreed that the wages of child care professionals were too low and 54% felt that Montana parents were currently paying too much for child care.

Numerous efforts to measure the impact of Montana’s child care system on our workforce and economy have occurred since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at the University of Montana identified in September of 2020 the impact on the workforce in Montana directly related to child care access. The BBER study showed that parents continued to experience child care-related work problems during the past year.

  • 62% missed time from work.
  • 26% declined to pursue further education or training.
  • 22% turned down a job offer.
  • 15% changed from full-time to part-time work.
  • 12% quit their job.
  • 8% chose not to go to full-time work and remained part time.

Access to affordable, high-quality child care is essential to a healthy economy, allowing parents of young children to engage in the labor force. Research from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry finds an estimated 32,000 working parents in Montana with children under 6 years old rely on some form of child care arrangement to remain in the labor force, which translates to approximately 6% of the state’s labor force in 2019.

Despite this reliance on child care to meet the state’s workforce needs, Montana’s parents and businesses have suffered from a lack of availability. As of July 2021, licensed child care capacity in Montana meets only 44% of estimated demand – leaving over 20,000 children in working parent households without access to licensed child care.

Amy Watson, a senior economist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry said, “Child care shortages exist throughout the state, which has contributed to Montana’s workforce shortage and hampered the state’s recovery from the pandemic recession.”

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, 60% of Montana counties (34 of 56) are considered child care deserts – meaning supply meets less than a third of estimated demand.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this shortage as important public health precautions have reduced the capacity at child care facilities across the state. During April 2020, 43% of licensed child care providers closed as an immediate response to the pandemic. These closures accounted for 10,921 child care slots at licensed providers. While many of these providers have found innovative ways to reopen and meet public health guidelines, shortages continue.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry and BBER have outlined the impacts to Montana’s workforce because of inadequate child care:

  • An average of 54,000 Montana parents worked reduced hours in the first half of 2021, which translates to 10% of the state’s labor force.
  • 32,000 parents were absent from work or were working part-time instead of full-time due to a lack of child care or the need to monitor remote learning in 2021.
  • 62% of Montana parents missed time from work due to inadequate child care in 2019.
  • Montana households with children ages 0-5 lose an average of $5,700 in wages annually due to inadequate child care.
  • Taxpayers lose a total of $32 million annually due to inadequate child care. The federal government loses almost $23 million annually in lower income tax receipts, while the state of Montana loses $9 million annually in income tax receipts.

And because of the child care situation, businesses are feeling the brunt of the issue first hand:

  • Montana businesses lose nearly $55 million annually due to inadequate child care, mainly from reduced revenue due to lower employee productivity and increased employee recruitment costs caused by unwanted employee turnover.
  • Most businesses in Montana (57%) recognize there is a shortage of affordable child care options in their community and stated increasing access should be a priority (60%).
  • 40% of all Montana businesses have difficulty recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce due to a lack of child care.
  • Inadequate child care has prevented 30% of Montana businesses from growing.
  • A lack of child care disproportionately impacts businesses with a predominately female workforce. Half of all businesses in Montana employing primarily women reported recruitment and retention difficulties due to a lack of child care.

So, what can be done? Zero to Five Montana is dedicated to the success of every child. Multisector partnerships are foundational to delivering stability and innovation, and to helping build an early childhood system where Montana families and communities can thrive. By taking a collaborative approach, Zero to Five Montana continues to lead a statewide team in identifying actionable solutions to the child care crisis, in part through analysis of the early care and education business ecosystem.

Zero to Five Montana, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the Montana Cooperative Development Center, and many private sector partners and foundations are all working collaboratively to find solutions to the state’s child care crisis.

In 2018, the multisector team was inspired to work toward a common goal, as spurred by the “Child Care Solutions for Your Workforce Summit” held the same year. From this work, the Family Forward Initiative was designed to support employers across Montana in implementing policy solutions to recruit and retain employees with young children. The work of this collaboration continues and has been supported through a technical assistance grant from First Children’s Finance.

Right now, employers across Montana are seeking innovative solutions to address the crisis. Such solutions include offering on-site child care, engaging in the development of cooperative models owned, operated and invested by businesses and community members, making connections through human resources with existing child care resource and referral agencies, modifying work environments to offer increased flexibility or remote work options, supporting through shared services existing providers, and developing innovative pathway programs for child care workers.

Increasing and strengthening the capacity for consultation and technical assistance infrastructure across communities will be key as the state continues to tackle this key issue. Zero to Five Montana and the Montana Cooperative Development Center have taken a proactive approach in partnering to merge early childhood systems expertise with an aptitude for business and economic development to support community and business leaders in their efforts to expand quality child care in their areas. Together, the partners have selected nine pilot communities to design and implement local community solutions. Businesses, community-based organizations, schools, public officials and more are coming together to discuss, determine and build their own solutions. These types of efforts will be critical as the state continues to move forward with addressing child care needs. And more innovation is needed. The crisis will not be solved overnight, but through grit and determination of Montanans’ solutions are emerging.

To learn more, visit and Both websites will be updated as the pilot programs move forward with webinars, roundtables, resources, templates, and case studies.