Child Care in Nebraska: How Community Support Can Make a Difference

It’s no secret child care is a prominent concern for working parents. When factoring the affordability and quality, if those basic needs aren’t met, concerns can turn dire.

The child care crisis in Nebraska has been bubbling up for years, and now that working Nebraskans are rebalancing after the pandemic, major issues are coming to a head. Child care organizations can no longer put a Band-Aid on the problem and Nebraska organizations are calling on the business community to step in.

The Facts – Why is Child Care so Expensive?

According to the Nebraska Child Care Affordability Calculator by First Five Nebraska and Committee for Economic Development, full-day, licensed child care in Douglas County costs $14,304 a year for infants in a child care center and $12,996 for a toddler. What’s considered affordable according to the Department of Health and Human Services? Seven percent of a family’s household income.

It doesn’t take much math to see the income requirements to meet that threshold. With the median household income in Nebraska sitting at $66,644, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, many Nebraskans are forced to reach deeper into their pockets.

Dr. Alexandra Daro, research scientist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, said that it’s certainly a positive that many families want to stay in Nebraska, but the fact of the matter is, working households need child care.

“One statistic that we talk about a lot here is the fact that 75% of [Nebraska] children under the age of 6 have all available caregivers in the workforce,” Daro said.

This statistic from the Census compares to a national average of 60%.

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Daro noted with that need comes high demand. If a parent isn’t faced with putting their child on a waitlist first, their next concern will be getting both affordable and quality care. But when breaking down the factors, quality child care is simply expensive to deliver.

Robert Patterson, CEO of Kids Can Community Center led the organization’s efforts to receive a top quality rating from the Step Up to Quality program. (photo by Debra S. Kaplan)
Robert Patterson, CEO of Kids Can Community Center led the organization’s efforts to
receive a top quality rating from the Step Up to Quality program. (photo by Debra S. Kaplan)

Michael Medwick, strategic communications manager at First Five Nebraska, emphasized the tough position child care providers are in, with the high cost of operating a program that meets the state’s licensing standards and staying affordable — creating a narrow margin.

“Providers can have only one choice, which is to try to keep the price point for parents at a level that is realistic, but does not drive them into the red,” Medwick said. “Rent, utilities, materials, resources, and payroll, everything that goes into delivering child care, those costs have gone up with the natural progress of inflation, but at a faster and higher rate than the average salary and earnings of working parents.”

Readers may have certainly come across news that child care facilities were forced to shutter their doors. Nebraska Medicine is closing its on-site child care facility this month, citing staffing and cost issues.

Why is Child Care so Important?

Before a child hits school age, development is happening at a rapid pace – Buffett Institute states that 90% percent of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life. According to First Five Nebraska, by age 3, children begin to learn social skills.

Daro considers the first eight years of life as the foundation for a lifetime. Using the visualization of a foundation for a home, if that framework is shaky, there are going to be issues down the road.

“Just thinking about specifically brain development, children’s brains develop the most rapidly,” she said. “They cover the most ground in terms of development in that first eight years of life.”

Daro noted, at minimum, children need warm, supportive caregiving relationships.

Amara receives therapy at CRCC. (Photo courtesy of CRCC)
Amara receives therapy at CRCC. (Photo courtesy of CRCC)

“Everyone needs to understand what it looks like to have that warm, supportive relationship with children, where there’s a give and take where children are able to communicate and receive communication back,” she said. “It’s foundational, partially because it supports all the other aspects of development — cognitive development, physical development, social development, emotional development. All of that is necessary for success long term.”

What’s more, what if a child needs individualized care beyond the scope of a traditional child care setting?

CRCC, a provider of skilled care for children with special needs, provides day care services for children who aren’t able to attend traditional day care. Serving about 400 kids in its program, CRCC combines early childhood education with services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology and behavioral health.

Mike Bird, CEO and president of CRCC, said families benefit greatly from having the element of traditional day care services.

“We by nature of our mission are really here to allow families to have a sense of normalcy, and for parents to be able to work, for parents to be able to get their errands done or go to their doctor’s appointments during the day,” Bird said.

CRCC is largely funded by Medicaid, with additional funding coming from private insurance and philanthropy.

Recognition of the need for these services is coming to the forefront.

MICAH House recently broke ground on a child care facility, poised to open in 2024. The facility will serve children needing a trauma-informed space.

Another specialized provider, Behaven Kids, offers behavior and mental health services for children with its specialized day program a solution for children that may require therapy for disorders such as autism spectrum disorder.

“Most of our children come in because they have had some sort of clinical diagnosis or they have had behavioral issues that the day care has found,” said Themis Gomes, CEO. “Unfortunately, they’ve been kicked out of the child care that they’re currently at for those reasons. So we take them in and we provide a treatment plan for them. And on that basis, we implement the treatment plan with the goal of having them back into their normal day cares or back into the educational school system.”

With so many developmental milestones reached by third grade for many children, that foundation is predictive of life success well into adulthood. Many parents may not know where to start when choosing child care that is right for their family.

Affordability and Quality

What does quality look like? And how does it fit your current financial needs? One way for parents to search for potential providers is the Nebraska Department of Education’s Step Up to Quality program, which provides quality ratings and an improvement system. By searching parents can search for providers by ZIP code, age group and program type to find participating providers within the program.

Robert Patterson, who has been CEO of Kids Can Community Center since 2010, said quality can be subjective, so when he learned about the program, he jumped at the opportunity to make improvements to show proof of concept.

“We believe in ensuring that every child should have a quality environment no matter where they live, or their household income or whatever barriers they may face,” he said. “I’m a big believer of the equity of that, especially when it comes to starting kids out right, so I was excited that there was something to latch on to and measure our own quality beyond the typical things that we could do internally.”

Child care providers can work through Steps 1-5, with opportunities for coaching teachers and staff. Kids Can is one of five providers to reach Step 5 at the time of this writing.

“It’s great to be one of the few [to reach Step 5], but I also believe in a rising tide lifts all boats,” Patterson said. “We can all do better and have the ability to offer these kids a lot more.”

Kids Can moved into its new $11 million facility at 4768 Q. St. in January, which includes expanded space for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, as well as its Out of School program.

While Step 5 is one resource, parents should not limit their decision to just the providers in the program. Touring facilities and interviewing staff will also give a good idea of quality.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a caregiver’s checklist might include indicators such as:

  • Positive teacher/student relationships
  • Developmentally-appropriate, evidence-based curriculum
  • Assessment of child progress
  • Promotion of nutrition and health
  • Staff with the appropriate qualifications
  • Family engagement
  • Licensing status

Daro suggested resources like Nebraska Childcare Referral Network, We Care for Kids/Por Todos Los Ninos and the Child Care Essentials booklet, which can be found on the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services website.

If affordability is beyond reach, Buffett Early Childhood Institute works with partners to collect data on the rates Nebraska child care centers are charging to set a subsidy rate for lower-income families.

Those who don’t qualify but are still struggling to pay the bills remain in the balance. That’s where policymakers and the business community are urged to step in.

Anne Brandt, executive director of Lincoln Littles, an organization formed in 2020 to address child care needs in Lincoln, is working to fill that gap.

“One of our big initiatives underneath the affordability sector of our strategic plan is tuition assistance,” Brandt said of its fundraising efforts. “We are helping families in the gap, which are families who make too much to qualify for state subsidy, but not enough to afford the high cost of quality care.”

Lincoln Littles raises private funds for partner child care providers to assist families, with an average of $2,300 given per child.

Lilli James, an early educator at the UNL Children’s Center in Lincoln, NE provides a hands-on, experiential approach to learning that is based on the needs and curiosity of young children. We Care for Kids is a campaign in the state that is raising awareness of the importance of quality early childhood education in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of We Care for Kids.)
Lilli James, an early educator at the UNL Children’s Center in Lincoln, NE provides a hands-on, experiential approach to learning that is based on the needs and curiosity of young children. We Care for Kids is a campaign in the state that is raising awareness of the importance of quality early childhood education in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of We Care for Kids.)

Activating the Business Community

“It can’t just be policy. It can’t just be private enterprise. It’s got to be a combination of them,” Medwick said.

First Five Nebraska deployed a project called the Nebraska Employer Early Childhood Accelerator to consult employers on addressing child care needs in their workforce.

Lincoln Littles also offers consulting services for businesses, which can include a survey for employees to better understand child care needs within a company. The business can then choose to invest in child care services in various ways, including subsidizing care or partnering with nearby child care facilities.

“A manufacturing business here in town, TMCO, for a couple of years now has been partnering with a near-site child care center and reserving spots for their staff and then they’re also subsidizing part of that care,” Brandt said. “It’s good for everybody. It’s good for businesses because their employees are going to probably stay and it’ll increase retention rates. Plus they know that they’re in a quality center.”

Brandt said support for working parents doesn’t have to translate to cost either, adapting flexible work schedules, avoiding meetings at 8 a.m. and simply understanding the needs of parents to create balance can go the distance.

“The extent that you are meeting the needs of the entire person, and everything that they’re doing, they’re going to be able to be more efficient, and probably more motivated,” she said.

A pre-pandemic study by the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found an estimated annual loss $745 million a year due to insufficient child care options in Nebraska. With the state of child care undoubtedly worst due to the pandemic, local businesses are finding unique ways to support their working parents.

Childcare Workforce – Not ‘Just Babysitters’

As Medwick puts it, “Nobody who goes into the child care profession gets rich off of it.”

Despite how well-intentioned a child care provider is, if they can’t make a living, they are undoubtedly going to look elsewhere for employment.

“Between 2019 and now, licensed child care in Nebraska has decreased by about by nearly 10%,” he said. “And when you consider the fact that even before the pandemic, we were already operating at a deficit — 91% of counties don’t have adequate child care resources to meet local demand — that steady attrition in the childcare profession is making it worse.”

According to Daro, not only are increased wages on top of mind for child care providers, but benefits are as well.

“It’s not just what your paycheck is, but are you getting adequate, not just physical health benefits, but also mental health benefits,” she said. “There is a lot of mental toll for child care providers and those who work with children.”

Wages and benefits are big factors in the retention of current workers, but also attracting individuals to the profession means providing quality education.

Those interested in the career can consider a child development associate degree or bachelor’s program. Kids Can partners with Metropolitan Community College to educate its staff.

“One of the important aspects [of quality care] is to continue to raise the education level of all of our teachers,” Patterson said.

He noted that it’s important to acknowledge child care workers as “more than just babysitters.”

Bird said CRCC’s starting pay is $17, up from $13 a year ago. The organization also works with pipeline programs like Avenue Scholars to identify students interested in a career in child care.

Lincoln Littles recently piloted a six-week course, “Childcare Teacher Foundations Class.” Enrollment is free and attendees receive $5,000 in tuition for their child once they are employed in the field.

“We’re really excited to be able to have that as an incentive for parents that are interested in working,” Brandt said. “We’re also partnering with Lincoln Literacy, as they have pathways for immigrants and refugees.”

At Behaven Kids, the level of education of care providers can have big implications.

“Our workforce is not equipped in both numbers and competency,” said Janie Funk, clinical director at Behaven Kids. “We’re seeing higher prevalence rates of dual diagnoses, dual mental and behavioral health conditions, which complicates the care that the kids need in the first place.

“There’s a lot of attention nationwide of our mental health crisis. So, add on a developmental disability or a neurodevelopmental condition, and the support needs just are amplified and more complicated.”

Behaven Kids supports children needing behavioral and mental health services. (Photo courtesy of Behaven Kids)
Behaven Kids supports children needing behavioral and
mental health services. (Photo courtesy of Behaven Kids)

Bright Spots

According to Kara Ficke, campaign manager with We Care for Kids, a recent statewide public opinion survey commissioned by We Care for Kids and Nebraska Extension, stated that 84% of registered voters agreed that Nebraska should support child care and early education, much like it does of K-12 and higher education.

Governor Jim Pillen signed LB754 into law in May, which will give a financial boost to both families and child care providers in 2024. Two key elements of this legislature will assist families and child care providers alike. The Nebraska Child Care Tax Credit Act provides a $2,000 refundable credit per child to households making less than $75,000 a year, and $1,000 credits for households making between $75,000 and $150,000 per year. It also provides a nonrefundable credit to those who contribute to child care in the state, particularly economically disadvantaged areas. Additionally, the School Readiness Tax Credit Act restores an expired program, with improvements. Individual child care professionals can apply for a refundable tax credit between $2,300 and $3,500. A tiered, nonrefundable credit is also offered to programs that offer a child care subsidy.

“We’ll be doing a lot of public education around how to understand and apply for the credits,” Medwick said. “We’re going to need people to work with us on getting the word out and get people educated on how it works, why and why it’s in place and how to take advantage.”


See our other stories in this Focus Section for Working Parents:

Beyond PTO: Nebraska Companies Offering New Benefits to Parents

The ‘Fourth Trimester’: The Importance of Continued Care After Birth