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Midlands Voices

Midlands Voices: Lawmakers' study shows the enormous stress on Nebraska child care

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By many accounts, Nebraska is faring better economically than other states. We rank highest in the nation in workforce participation and lowest in unemployment. Yet my colleagues and I know COVID-19 still takes a toll on Nebraskans. The Legislature has the obligation to set budget and policy decisions that allow and encourage our economy to flourish. I am committed to doing just that.

Recently, the Appropriations Committee submitted an interim study report to the full Legislature on Legislative Resolution 390 assessing the fiscal and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Nebraska’s early childhood workforce and the early childhood care and education system. This study increased our understanding of how foundational child care is to everything Nebraska depends on economically.

While we rank highest in workforce participation, we consistently rank in the top five states with children under age 6 who have all available parents in the workforce. That’s a tough statistic when you consider 91% of Nebraska counties don’t have sufficient child care capacity to meet current demand. Twelve counties do not have a single licensed child care provider.

According to two surveys conducted by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska during COVID-19, child care providers are struggling for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and financial assistance. While the federal CARES Act helped, 51% of child care providers surveyed in June 2020 said if the pandemic continues or worsens, they will likely have to close. This will have ripple effects throughout our entire economy.

Recently, First Five Nebraska and the UNL Bureau of Business Research published findings from a study that quantifies the pre-COVID economic fallout from limited access to child care — nearly $745 million annually in direct losses. Insufficient options for stable reliable child care take a heavy toll on working parents, employers and our state revenues.

To better understand the pandemic’s impact, I invited parents and businesses in every county across the state to take the Nebraska Child Care and COVID-19 Survey.

For Nebraska parents, stress is high. The balance of work, caring for young children, supporting school-age children, and dealing with financial challenges is straining. Fifty-two percent of parents responding to the survey had to miss work because of child care issues during the pandemic, and 38% said they do not have sufficient child care for their needs, including during evenings and weekends.

We also heard from local businesses. When asked about impacts due to COVID-19, business owners responding to this survey emphasizing changing schedules and financial difficulties. Seventy-eight percent of responding business owners made changes to employee shifts or schedules because of child care arrangements. Seventy-one percent have employees who have been late, missed or left work because of child care problems.

These difficulties create fears about long-term impact on businesses and communities. Both surveys reveal severe challenges with significant implications for Nebraska’s workforce and the health of Nebraska’s economy.

Building on our increased understanding of the importance of quality child care, the Appropriations Committee report on LR 390 recommended:

Exploring policy implications of and steps necessary to fund the early childhood care and education system based on the size of Nebraska’s economy.

Evaluating public- and private-sector financing options for the early childhood care and education system. Nebraska should consider a phased approach for fully funding the early childhood care and education system commensurate with our state’s economy and growth.

I am committed to addressing the concerns raised by parents and businesses. We can’t fix them overnight, but with a phased-in approach, we can strategically build an early childhood education system based on the size of the economy we’re trying to sustain and grow.

To those in the early care and education field, I thank you. Your efforts have ensured Nebraska parents could stay employed, businesses could stay open, and that our state’s economy could continue to thrive during the most challenging public health crisis of our time.

John Stinner, of Gering, represents District 48 in the Nebraska Legislature and chairs the Appropriations Committee.

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