Twenty-five years ago I was pregnant with my first child. The small business that I owned and operated with my husband wasn’t bringing in enough cash in the off-season, and I set out to look for another job to help make ends meet. I quickly realized that once my child arrived, the jobs I could get would not allow both my husband and I to keep working and also afford child care.
The strategies we deployed to raise our three children are a blur to me now, but it’s clear that for many Montana families, the hill has only gotten steeper. The stress of the pandemic fully revealed the fragility of our child care system. The loss of public schools and child care centers forced many parents, including one out of four working moms, to leave the workforce to take care of their children.
A recent report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry found that 40 percent of businesses said the lack of affordable child care in their community is restricting their ability to recruit and retain workers. While many of us are feeling the recovery fueled by vaccinations, targeted federal investments, and record summer tourism, it’s clear that Montana businesses are only realizing a fraction of the promise that this new spending could provide, in part due to a reduced number of parents in the workforce.
We know the impact that an inadequate child care system has on the economy, and leaving it broken hurts us all. In my work as a legislator and child advocate, I have the privilege of talking to folks across the state about their hopes for the future and concerns of today, and I have found that the underlying needs of Montana’s workforce deserve to be better understood. And while working parents aren’t the only ones struggling, we must acknowledge the critical losses that result from failing to meet their needs.
It’s time that policies and investments on a local, state and national level work for parents and families in a way that lifts our entire economy. When parents succeed, it means food and security for their children – but also more money to invest in their local communities and small businesses.
A larger workforce and a stronger economy are within our reach, but it starts with a commitment from our elected leaders to invest in our children and our working families. As a state, we can increase wages for child care workers and ensure parents have access to paid family leave. On a national level, we can pass the PRO Act and protect workers’ rights to negotiate fair wages and working conditions, and pass Child Nutrition Reauthorization and ensure these essential programs reach the children who need them most.
All of us have now seen how fragile our economy really becomes when we don’t adequately support the systems meant to enrich the lives and security of our children. Let’s use these painful lessons from the last year to build an economy that truly creates a brighter future for every Montanan.
Laurie Bishop is a Democratic representative from Livingston.
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