Reporter's Notebook

Investing in Families

Family support isn’t a symptom of bloated government, but rather a sign of functioning government

By Myers Reece

In 2016, according to an analysis that year, childcare was the largest expense for a median-income family with two kids in Montana, surpassing housing and food. For a low-income household, particularly with a single parent, the financial burden is crushing, or impossible. 

The state offers very little non-federal financial support to address those soaring costs, and the overall availability of childcare falls wildly short of meeting demand. Montana is also one of only a half-dozen U.S. states without state-funded preschool.

Such realities force families to choose between work and childcare, which keeps parents out of the labor force and hinders employers. In the aggregate, this all hurts our economy and society, not to mention the development of our children, who are our future.

Considering those realities, one might think the state would want to improve the situation, particularly coming out of the pandemic. Yet, even as bipartisan support grows at the federal level for increasing support for families with children, Montana’s Republican-led government made cuts to state health department services that benefit families, including funding for the early childhood program STARS to Quality. 

At the height of the pandemic, when it became brutally clear how vital childcare was to the economy, early childhood advocates in Montana and nationwide expressed hope that both sides of the aisles would realize the urgency and essential usefulness of funneling resources toward remedying the problem. 

The thinking was that conservatives, who have been reluctant to support such policies, would now be compelled by a pro-business argument. But that proved overly optimistic in Montana. While it’s nice that the Legislature passed House Bill 624, which establishes a task force to study childcare affordability and accessibility, there was yet again no progress on preschool funding or evidence of a philosophical shift in supporting early childhood programs.

The truth is that family support isn’t a symptom of bloated government, but rather a sign of functioning government, in which elected officials use their resources to spur economic growth and offer practical returns on taxpayers’ investments.

In Washington D.C., however, the pandemic has led to the momentum that childcare advocates were hoping to see. President Joe Biden last week released the details of his $1.8 trillion American Families Act. 

In addition to increasing college financial assistance, Biden’s proposed plan seeks to provide universal free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds; reduce the cost of childcare and keep parents, especially women, in the workforce; initiate 12-week mandatory paid leave; and expand resources for combating child food insecurity.

The plan also calls for making expanded child tax credits permanent for families. The Biden administration already installed temporary direct payments, which are common in European countries to support families, as part of COVID-19 relief. Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Josh Hawley separately proposed larger direct-payment credits for families.

The state Department of Labor and Industry said last month that 20,000 Montana parents haven’t been able to fully return to the workforce because of the state’s childcare shortage, and one-third of employers say lack of childcare has stagnated their company’s growth. 

But economic debates elide the most important point of all: investing in our children is good for humanity, for us, for them, for our future. It’s hard to argue against happier, healthier children, who then have a far better chance of growing up to be happier, healthier adults.

If Biden’s plan can clear congressional hurdles, Montana’s families would reap the benefits, despite their own state government’s lack of meaningful action.

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