Start Early. Start well.

October 09, 2023

Thriving Children conference Panel: 'Long-Term, Real Solutions' Needed to Tackle Nebraska's Child Care Crisis

Thriving Children conference keynote response panelMembers of the keynote response panel at the Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference called for bold action to fix Nebraska's child care crisis. From left are Walter Gilliam, K.C. Belitz, Michelle Suarez, Brian Maher, Heidi Pieper, and Heath Mello.

By Erin Duffy 

Heidi Pieper issued a bold challenge at the Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference.  

When it comes to fixing Nebraska’s child care crisis, we must demand more. More than Band-Aid fixes. More than incremental, piecemeal efforts.   

“We need to exit crisis mode and start thinking about long-term, real solutions that are going to have a lasting impact,” she said. “We need more than what we’ve done with the child care tax credits and the increase in background checks and things like that. I’m super thankful for them. But we really need more. McDonald’s, fast food restaurants should not be competition for our workforce in child care.” 

In 2022, the mean hourly wage for a child care worker in Nebraska was $13.46, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Heidi PieperHeidi Pieper

“When we have staff caring for our children in the most critical times in their growth and development who are earning salaries that put them living under the poverty line, it’s just completely unacceptable,” Pieper said. “I don’t think that there’s any way that we can say that we care about children when that’s the level of value that we assign to their caregivers.” 

She clearly struck a chord. The crowd, made up of more than 450 people from Nebraska and beyond attending the Thriving Children conference in Kearney, Nebraska, on Sept. 19, clapped and cheered in agreement.  

Pieper is a mom, a licensed foster parent, a first-generation rancher in small-town Farnam, Nebraska, and the southwest regional manager with the Nebraska Farm Bureau. She and four other state and community leaders brought their personal and professional experiences with early childhood care and education to a Thriving Children conference keynote panel discussion on the urgent need to address Nebraska’s child care emergency.  

In addition to Pieper, the speakers included: 

  • K.C. Belitz, Nebraska Department of Economic Development director 
  • Walter Gilliam, Buffett Early Childhood Institute executive director (moderator) 
  • Brian Maher, Nebraska Department of Education commissioner 
  • Heath Mello, Greater Omaha Chamber CEO/president 
  • Michelle Suarez, retired elementary school principal

Gilliam asked the panelists how to do more than “admire the problem.” Everyone in the room knows child care shortages and labor problems persist, he said. So what do we do about it?  

Several panelists pointed to community successes that could be studied and replicated: Mello pointed out one innovative effort in Nebraska City, where officials are using a combination of state, federal, and local funds to rehab old buildings to house two new child care programs. The Greater Omaha Chamber is talking with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation about employers creating scholarship slots for child care. 

“It's really an incubation-stage idea to see what we as a business community can do to not just put our money where our mouth is, but truly try to create new models in the Omaha area to ensure workers have access to child care that's being sponsored by their employer,” Mello said.  

Suarez said public funding for early childhood education must be part of the equation. In 2020, the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission called for Nebraska’s early childhood system to be fully funded by 2030 with a mix of public and private funds. A recent research brief from the Buffett Institute showed that the gap between what is funded and what is needed to support quality early childhood education in Nebraska has only grown over the last few years.  

“At the local, at the state, at the national level, we need to work with elected officials and business leaders and people who really, I guess, make things work. But we must have increased public funding, and we really can anchor that on to existing systems,” Suarez said.  

Belitz and Maher are both relatively new to their state-level positions overseeing economic development and education.  

Twenty years ago, child care would not have been considered an economic issue, Belitz said.  

“We should have a much higher level of hope today than maybe 20 years ago or even 10 years ago,” he said. “There is just an awareness that this is a challenge beyond just something that belongs within the purview of early childhood or education.”  

Events like Thriving Children strive to make clear the link between quality early childhood education, healthy communities, and a successful economy. In Nebraska, 72% of young children live in homes where all adults work. Reliable, affordable, trustworthy child care is a necessity for those families—and their employers.  

“Child care is essential,” said Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, who opened the conference.   

Pieper, Maher, and Gilliam agreed that increasing compensation and respect for early educators is key to recruiting and retaining teachers who are too often undervalued and underpaid.  

“The money is important, but the value that we place on the position and just the appreciation we have for those who are doing the magic in the classrooms … that's going to be a crucial piece as well,” Maher said.  


Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.     
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at

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