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Child care in Missoula is expensive – if parents can even find a provider in the first place.

Last year the Montana Department of Labor and Industry compared the number of child care providers to the number of children younger than 5 years old in Missoula County, and discovered that the potential clientele was more than double the capacity.

So what do parents do? With housing costs also sky high and wages rising excruciatingly slowly, having one parent stay home with young children simply isn’t an option for many families. In fact, the labor force participation rate of Missoula County moms exceeds 70%, according to recent data provided in the DLI report.

Instead, desperate parents turn to friends, family members and unlicensed providers who may or may not offer safe, healthy learning environments during those critical early years of development.

Either way, parents pay a lot for this necessary service. Earlier this year the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce gathered information from 550 local residents in a survey that found respondents were paying more than $600 per month for child care, with infant care the most expensive at more than $800 per month.

Such a major expense can severely hobble low-income families already struggling to get by. It also creates a drag on local economies in need of a growing workforce by discouraging parents who can afford to stay home with young children from working instead. The Chamber survey noted that 47% of respondents had either scaled back or completely abandoned their jobs due to child care issues. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Missoula is low and dropping lower, nearing just 3%, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite the high cost and significant need, child care providers are not getting rich off parents’ predicament. The average annual income of child care workers in Montana is only $22,360.

The situation grew even more dire this year when state legislators failed to continue funding a fledgling preschool program, leaving Montana one of only six states in the nation with no public preschool (the others are Idaho, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and New Hampshire). The end of the pilot program and the loss of federal grants put an estimated 1,400 preschool slots for 4- and 5-year-olds at risk.

But as the problem has gotten worse, it has also attracted wider attention – along with some creative solutions.

One promising approach organized under the United Way of Missoula County is aimed at building a community-wide connection between parents, caregivers and other organizations serving young children. The Zero to Five initiative was launched by the Headwaters Foundation in December 2018 in four pilot counties: Missoula, Flathead, Silver Bow, and Lewis and Clark. In Missoula, working groups with Zero to Five have been meeting regularly to focus on improving access to high-quality child care and enhancing support for families.

Earlier this month, a panel organized by the initiative shared some insights into current barriers. Local child care providers in attendance noted that the cost of renting a home or larger facility in Missoula is one significant challenge. State insurance laws are another; they can limit some providers looking to save money by operating out of their own homes.

A representative from the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, which is spearheading its own child care initiative, discussed the potential of building momentum to loosen some these restrictions in the next legislative session.

In the meantime, local businesses would be wise to watch and learn from such firms as Submittable, a tech company that recently opened its own child care facility. The software company’s new Kid Care facility is located inside its Missoula building so parents can drop in any time, and currently includes four staff caring for eight children 2 years old and younger.

That’s a powerful incentive for potential employees who are also parents of young children – one that businesses hoping to expand might want to study. Submittable, for one, landed $10 million in capital investment over the summer and has plans to add 150 positions to its current workforce of about 100 employees.

On the provider side, a new company is breaking ground for entrepreneurs interested in running their own small business and finding a way to make child care a viable career. MyVillage, started by two Montana moms, franchises child care operations run out of provider homes and handles all the headaches involved with marketing, licensing, insurance, billing and myriad other small-business duties. The company also acts as a resource for information about early education, best practices for child care providers, curriculum options and more.

Earlier this year co-founder and CEO Erica Mackey told the Missoulian that a provider caring for six children full-time can earn about $65,000 a year. Running child care operations from their own homes helps providers keep expenses down, which allows them to keep rates affordable for parents.

Mackey and her business partner, Elizabeth Szymanski, landed nearly $6 million in venture capital, the largest round of seed funding in Montana history and a good indication of the rising importance of creative child care solutions.

This isn’t a problem borne just by parents. And there isn’t one simple fix for Missoula’s affordable child care crunch. But it’s encouraging to see the issue being addressed from so many different sides and discussed by the wider community. 

Now, let's work together to solve this problem. 

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