Much of the Sept. 14 conference focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it has exposed the weaknesses inside Nebraska's child care system. The state's child care industry has long teetered on the brink of disaster, speakers said. COVID-19 could well push it over the edge.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
The state of Nebraska loses $745 million a year because of inadequate child care, Sen. John Stinner told a virtual audience of more than 700 people during the recent Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference.
He paused for a moment after mentioning this bleak economic reality. He let that large number sink in.
Then Stinner acknowledged what much of the crowd already knew: Child care is in an even worse place in 2020.
“This was pre-COVID,” said Stinner, chairman of the Legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee, of the study done by First Five Nebraska and University of Nebraska-Lincoln economists. “So obviously the impact is much greater during this COVID situation.”
Speaker after speaker and conversation after conversation at the Sept. 14 Thriving Children conference kept circling back to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it has exposed the weaknesses inside the system that cares for the vast majority of Nebraska’s youngest children.
The state’s child care industry has long teetered on the brink of disaster, they said. COVID-19 could well push it over the edge.
“In our field of early care and education, we have never before met anything with the destructive potential of this disease,” said Dr. Sam Meisels, the founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and one of the country’s foremost early childhood experts.
But, while acknowledging COVID’s destructive nature, conversation after conversation at the conference focused on the fact that Nebraskans have already identified both problems and potential solutions.
We are going to fix this, speakers said. We must fix this.
“We’re here today to acknowledge these problems and to make the bold statement that as child care goes, so goes our communities,” Meisels said.
Early childhood experts and parents of young children alike can easily identify the longtime weaknesses in Nebraska’s child care system.
The long-underfunded industry has lurched along unsteadily for years. Child care programs have tiny profit margins. Early childhood teachers are often paid poverty-level wages. And middle-class parents across the state struggle to find quality, affordable care for their young children.
Some 91 percent of Nebraska counties don’t have sufficient child care to meet demand, Stinner noted. And 11 Nebraska counties don’t have a single licensed child care provider.
Even in normal times, this lack of child care costs the state dearly.
Speaking at the conference, UNL economists noted that the lack of quality care causes Nebraska parents to miss work, reduce their number of hours worked, refuse promotions, and sometimes leave the workforce altogether. Together, this costs Nebraska families $489 million annually, they said.
In addition, Nebraska businesses lose $234 million annually because of decreased productivity from employees and higher employee turnover related to child care issues. And the State of Nebraska itself loses $21 million a year in lost tax revenues.
(Read the Bottom Line report produced by the economists and First Five Nebraska here.)
The stunning total: Nebraska and Nebraskans are leaving $745 million on the table each year because of our broken child care system.
The effect of these losses is felt in cities like Fremont, where nine of the city’s 10 child care centers were already at capacity before COVID hit, says Garry Clark, CEO of the Greater Fremont Development Council.
Clark has watched, frustrated, as Fremont employers shut down their operations in part because of a lack of child care for employees. He has watched Fremont businesses lose talented employees who moved or dropped out of the workforce after being unable to find quality local child care.
COVID-19 has further laid bare the reality that many Nebraska child care providers are one setback away from locking their doors—making a bad situation even worse, speakers said.
More than half of all child care providers recently surveyed by the Buffett Institute reported that, if they don’t receive financial assistance, they are likely to close if the pandemic continues or worsens.
“If we don’t fix this, we will lose the workforce we have, we will lose the talent we have,” Clark said. “They will go somewhere else, someplace where they can fulfill those hopes and those needs for their families.”
So, how does Nebraska fix it?
Stinner outlined a series of steps that he, the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, and others have already taken to show how much more public, private, and philanthropic money is needed to fully fund the state’s child care system.
He introduced a brief survey meant for Nebraska business owners and parents in all 93 counties, to help Stinner and the Appropriations Committee gauge the severity of the pandemic’s effect on child care. (Take that survey here.)
And he reiterated a goal to bring legislation that could improve child care in Nebraska, saying, “It’s something I am willing to take on.”
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘John, you are a Republican, what are you doing in early childhood?’” the conservative lawmaker said. “Well…if you believe in capitalism, you believe in quality education. It provides the workforce for successful business.”
Linda Smith, the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Development Initiative, believes that every level of government needs to focus on saving teetering child cares during the pandemic. Then, as it eases in 2021, the conversation must pivot to strengthening child care in the long run.
Early childhood education maintains bipartisan support, said Smith, who formerly served as deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s one of the few things that Congress still agrees on,” she told the audience.
But, in Congress and everywhere else, the conversation needs to shift. We need to “begin to have this conversation about funding child care as a shared responsibility, a community responsibility.”
That shift is part of the solution, Smith thinks. Alongside it: Finding bipartisan ways to close the considerable gap between how much quality American child care costs, and how much working-class American parents can actually afford.
The pandemic is refocusing national attention on the essential nature of child care. It’s hard to ignore when 71% of American child cares are either closed or at limited capacity because of COVID-19.
“We have the national spotlight,” Smith said. Now, she said, we need to use it.
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.