Community Stories

Childcare: A critical need

The Headwaters Staff

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Children deliver pizza they made at Missoula Community School.

Since we started making grants in 2018, Headwaters has invested more than $3 million into efforts to build resilience for children and families. We identified this focus through a three-month listening tour across our region, where community leaders highlighted the need to invest upstream, starting with kids.

It makes good financial sense, too. Some research shows that investing in children in their earliest years offers a $16 dollar return for every $1 spent. In fact, during the first five years, a child’s brain experiences the most rapid brain growth it will ever experience. Neuropathways form that shape the way children learn and grow. Nurturing children at this critical time is fundamental to their success in school, to their social and emotional development, and the way they adapt to stress throughout their lives.

While family plays a critical role in a child’s life in these earliest years, the reality is that in Montana, two thirds of children under age five live in a home where both parents work; that means that access to high-quality care during these years outside the home is critical. And in our state, there are not enough childcare providers to serve even half of the kids who need it. As this pandemic has unfolded, we have been very concerned about the impact of this crisis on the limited supply of childcare we do have.

The business model for most childcare centers, whether in someone’s home or in a larger facility, is set up to fail. With revenues based on ever-changing demand and market pricing, and increased costs to create quality programs, most childcare centers simply do not pencil out. It is patched together by childcare centers and in-home facilities run by caregivers who sometimes care for children for 12 hours a day. On average, childcare providers in Montana earn between $9 and $11 per hour for difficult, skilled work. At the same time, the costs associated with childcare stretch the finances of middle-income families and make it nearly impossible for lower-income families to afford quality care. The childcare system in the U.S. and Montana is broken.

In Montana, COVID-19 has highlighted a lack of infrastructure for the childcare industry in our state. But it has also provided an opportunity for state agencies, communities, care providers and organizations such Zero to Five Montana and the Montana Childcare Resources & Referral Network, to advocate for early care for all of Montana’s children.

Headwaters is proud to support this work. To this end, we have invested in emergency efforts at the local level to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and to provide some stability to the fractured system. We are supporting leaders in developing long-term solutions that address the largest cracks in the system including a pilot, shared-services model for childcare in Missoula and the potential to scale it at the state level. We’re supporting bringing business leaders together to talk about systemic change to the childcare system in our state because they realize it is an economic issue as well. And we partner with other funders in the state through the Funders for Montana’s Children to identify and support statewide strategies.

According to the research by the National Association of the Education of Young Children, America is likely to lose 50 percent or more of its quality early childhood providers due to COVID-19. Montana cannot afford this loss. We need immediate support to stabilize those providers we have left. And, we need to rebuild our childcare system back better. This will take a dedicated and coordinated effort. 

There are no easy solutions but COVID-19 has made clear that we must begin working toward them so that our childcare system is more sustainable for providers, communities and, most importantly, our children.