A statewide survey of parents and business owners drives home the point that Nebraska's current child care system—underfunded and struggling long before the pandemic—isn't well-built enough to withstand a normal year, let alone a pandemic-marred year like 2020 or 2021.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
COVID-19 is bad enough. Our state’s child care reality is making it worse.
That’s the message many Nebraska parents and employers sent to a key state lawmaker in a recent statewide survey that reveals the pandemic’s impact on Nebraska child care.
And that’s the message the lawmaker, Sen. John Stinner, delivered to the Nebraska Legislature on Tuesday, when he revealed the survey’s results—part of a report by the Appropriations Committee—and told his fellow lawmakers that Nebraska needs to build a better early care and education system. We need to do this to rebuild from the pandemic, he said. We need to do it to properly build our state’s future.
“If we don’t have the kind of child care we need across the state—and enough of it—working parents will have a hard time staying productively employed,” the Gering Republican wrote before speaking about child care on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature. “Businesses won’t have the workforce they need, and our state and local economies won’t be able to fully recover.
“Sufficient, high-quality child care is a critical piece of infrastructure that Nebraska needs to run smoothly.”
Stinner’s words, and the survey results, drive home the point that Nebraska’ current child care system—underfunded and struggling long before the pandemic—isn’t well-built enough to withstand a normal year, much less a pandemic-marred year like 2020 or 2021.
State Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee.
And, when our child care system falters, it puts severe strain on the parents who rely on child care, the business owners who employ those parents, and the state economy itself.
The numbers are striking. More than 51% of the 1,050 parents who responded to Stinner’s survey reported that they had to miss work because of child care issues during COVID-19. Nearly half, 44%, said they had to reduce their work hours because of child care issues. And more than one out of every three Nebraska parents surveyed, 38%, said they don’t have sufficient child care for their needs.
And the voices from the survey are more striking still. Many Nebraska parents are fearful and frustrated.
How am I supposed to work full-time and care for my children full-time at the same time?
Why am I being forced to choose between what’s best for my economic future, and what’s best for my family’s future?
“It has made it extremely hard to be a good mom and a good wife, all while trying to be a good employee,” writes a parent from Buffalo County, the central Nebraska county where Kearney is located. “It’s been hard. It’s been draining. Above all, it’s been financially debilitating.”
Business owners who responded to the survey also reported massive challenges stemming from a lack of child care for their employees. Nearly eight out of 10 business owners responding to the survey said they have made changes to employee shifts or schedules because of child care arrangements during COVID.
And 71% of employers said their workers have been late, left work, or missed work because of child care problems.
“Some parents of young children are taking them to work or a friend’s house or grandparent because several day cares have shut down due to COVID,” said one business owner in north-central Nebraska’s Brown County. “Some are using unlicensed homes just to find a place for child care so they don’t miss work. I’m afraid some families have considered moving away if we can’t offer high-quality, reliable child care in Ainsworth.”
These are far from new problems in Nebraska. Child care providers here operate on the thinnest of profit margins, and often struggle with near-constant turnover tied to the low wages paid to early childhood teachers and providers. Because of a lack of quality child care providers, nearly every Nebraska county lacks the capacity to meet child care demand. Parents all over the state have long struggled to find quality, affordable child care for their children.
This struggle wounds the Nebraska economy. The state loses an eye-popping $745 million annually because parents drop out of the work force, cut back their hours, or simply move elsewhere because they can’t find child care, says a study by the University of Nebraska−Lincoln’s Bureau of Business Research conducted before the pandemic.
COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated these problems.
Some 231 Nebraska licensed child care providers have officially closed their doors during the pandemic—a number of closures experts worry will be higher once all closures are reported to the state.
And not nearly enough new child care providers opened in 2020 to pick up the slack, leading to fear that it’s becoming even harder to find quality care for a Nebraska child, particularly if that child is an infant or toddler or is living in a rural county.
Twelve counties in Nebraska have no licensed child care providers within their borders. And a whopping 91% of Nebraska counties don’t have enough child care slots to meet the needs of area families, according to Voices for Children’s 2019 Kids Count report.
While the pandemic has harmed Nebraska child care, it has also helped to expose the solutions, including solutions articulated in the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission report released only two months before COVID-19 first hit Nebraska. (Read the report here.)
The commission—at Sen. Stinner’s request—calculated that the State of Nebraska needs to gradually increase its funding of the early childhood system, an increase that, if paired with increased federal funding and private money, could fully fund early childhood in Nebraska in the next decade.
Stinner, the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, is attempting to take the first step, sponsoring a bill that would increase early childhood funding in Nebraska by $5 million over the next two years.
He has repeatedly expressed a belief that the state can chip away at this problem—that we can and must find a way to better invest in Nebraska’s youngest citizens so that they, their families, and the state itself can prosper.
“For everyone at home, especially parents and business owners, I want you to know I am committed to addressing the early childhood education concerns you raised,” Stinner wrote. “It’s not something we can fix overnight, but, with a phased-in approach, we can strategically build an early childhood system based on the size of the economy to which we aspire.”
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.