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Child Care Gap on the Flathead Reservation

The Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, spans 1.2 million acres. Like many families living in rural areas, those living on the reservation often lack access to affordable, quality child care. However, the shortage of child care on the Flathead is exacerbated by systematic underfunding of federal programs for tribes compounded with high rates of poverty. The child care gap on the reservation, meaning the percent of young children with working parents that lack access to formal child care, is 46.5%. That is 1.4 times the national average.

In October 2022, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative sat down with parents, teachers, and leaders on the Flathead Reservation to hear from them about the reservation’s child care crisis. As the final webinar in our four-part series focusing on tribal child care, we featured our documentary Righting a Wrong: Closing the Gap in Child Care for Native American Families. The documentary showcases the Salish Kootenai College (SKC) Early Learning Center and the impact it has on the families it serves and the community at-large.

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The SKC Early Learning Center enables Native American parents to work and continue their education with the peace of mind that their children are in a quality environment. For Gail Crawford, an SKC student and parent, this child care center meant the difference between dropping out of school and working towards her bachelor’s degree. Last year she told us, “Without them, I probably wouldn’t be as far as I am in my education, especially at SKC. I probably would’ve given up.” Unfortunately, this early learning center can only serve a handful of the hundreds of children and working parents living on or near the reservation. Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald explains that child care is a “critical unmet need” for working families on the reservation.

In their 2023-2025 477 Plan, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes included 2,911 children in their child count, 175 of which receive child care subsidies directly from the tribe. There are only 27 home- and center-based child care providers on the Flathead that accept subsidies. Together, these providers have a total capacity for about 786 children. This leaves over 2,000 children who might benefit from child care or after-school care. Moreover, many of the slots for existing capacity are for preschool-aged children, meaning working parents with infants and toddlers might find it especially challenging to find care. Janet Jolley, the director of the SKC Early Learning Center, explains that the lack of capacity for infant care on the reservation motivated them to open their own infant room in 2021.

Child care providers are clustered in Polson, Pablo, St. Ignatius, and Arlee, leaving parents from more remote, and often more affordable, areas of the reservation without access to local providers. SKC student and parent Joni Tobacco drives 90 minutes each way to get to the SKC Early Learning Center. For her family, this was the only way to find both affordable housing and child care.

The Flathead Reservation is not an outlier. In a BPC survey of Native American parents, a majority of employed Native American parents (53%) say child care responsibilities impacted their ability to work over the past month. Three in four (77%) Native American parents who have someone in their household not working say child care responsibilities influenced their decision to not work.

Luckily, there are solutions to this child care crisis. The SKC Early Learning Center is an example of what is possible when tribes receive funding for child care. In our survey, Native American parents are more likely to prefer child care services from a tribe (56%) rather than from the state (44%). With the demand for tribal-provided child care, it may be possible to replicate this model across other reservations given adequate funding.

SKC student and parent Jarrod Allen puts it best.

“Reaching this point in life to pursuing a college education has been a struggle for me on my reservation. A lot of my people struggle with suicide, drugs, alcohol, and we come from broken families. To make it to this point has been a struggle. Finding child care should not be a struggle.”

To make more child care facilities like the SKC Early Learning Center possible for tribal communities, more funding must be made available. Affordable, accessible, and quality child care is the first step towards equity and financial independence for Native American families.

To learn more, read our full report.

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