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Lincoln organizations continue to search for a cure to child care crisis

The Lincoln Journal Star - 10/17/2023

Oct. 16—In the midst of a nationwide child care crisis, Nebraska organizations are continuing the fight to find a solution to create more quality, affordable child care.

Child care deserts are scattered across the rural parts of the state, causing parents to struggle to find a place for their children — let alone be able to afford it — and fewer and fewer people are seeking jobs in child care.

Plus, $24 billion in federal pandemic funding for child care expired at the end of September.

Organizations in Lincoln and across the state are working to take small steps and find small solutions that will hopefully help end the child care crisis in Nebraska one day, but the problem won't be solved overnight.

In Lincoln, 78% of children under the age of 6 have all parents in the workforce, and more than 3,600 children under 5 years old live in families that fall below the poverty threshold, according to data collected by Lincoln Littles. While the need for child care is high, there aren't enough providers to cover the gap.

"Lincoln has child care," said Anne Brandt, executive director of the nonprofit Lincoln Littles. "But we definitely have less seats than we used to have."

In an effort to attract more people to the profession, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is continuing to cover the cost of background checks that are required for all child care providers.

The department has been covering the $45.24 fee for future child care providers to have fingerprinting done by the Nebraska State Patrol since March 2020. The service was originally set to end Sept. 30, but the department recently announced an extension to continue paying for background checks for potential providers until April 30 with the federal Child Care and Development Fund Program.

The department will reevaluate prior to this date to see if it can continue this support, said William Padmore, a department spokesman.

In the past, new hires were asked to pay the fee themselves upfront or would have it deducted from their paychecks.

Covering these costs for providers who are already on thin profit margins is ideal, according to Brandt, but the sometimes weeks-long wait time for results needs to be shortened, too.

The sooner child care candidates are approved, the sooner they can start working, Brandt said. If background checks are delayed, candidates may look for other job opportunities elsewhere.

First Five Nebraska, a public policy organization in Lincoln, is working to help policymakers examine the fingerprinting and background-check process and plans to bring the issue before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee in the near future, according to Michael Medwick, the organization's strategic communications manager.

"Our goal, and that of our partners, is to explore how we can increase alignment and reduce inefficiencies in this complex, multi-step process so child care providers can fully staff their programs and serve families without making any compromises on the safety and well-being of children in care," Medwick said in an email.

While covering this cost is certainly a step in the right direction, it isn't a cure-all solution.

So, what else can be done?

Brandt said her organization and others in Lincoln, are still searching for an answer to that question.

For now, Lincoln Littles is focused on attracting people to the profession to build the workforce back up.

By hiring a wellness workforce navigator and creating a free child care class with scholarship opportunities, Brandt hopes to bring something new to the table and give potential employees an incentive to join the workforce.

"Child care providers are the workforce behind the workforce," Brandt said.

The class allows potential or pre-existing child care teachers to learn the basics in child care, become CPR certified and, perhaps best of all, receive a $5,000 scholarship to cover the cost of child care tuition for their own children. For those who have no children, a $2,500 stipend is available.

The first group made up of 11 future and current providers graduated from the Childcare Teacher Foundation Class in mid-August, and the second class started on Monday. There was a lot more interest in the second class, with nearly 40 applicants for only 25 available spots.

A survey performed by Lincoln Littles in 2022, which had a 30% response rate, revealed that 1,500 kids were on waitlists for child care at the time, and there were about 170 open positions for providers in Lincoln.

"Had we gotten a 100% return rate, I mean, that's a lot of kids that aren't being served that could be served," Brandt said, "and a lot of people who have left the workforce to pursue other opportunities, often because they aren't paid well, nor do they get appropriate benefits."

Filling the workforce gap won't completely solve the problem, however, because many families can't afford child care.

"It's really a broken system," she said.

Nebraska ranks as the least affordable state in the nation for a variety of child care types, according to Lincoln Littles.

The average cost of child care ranges from $10,000 to $14,500 a year, and 42% of children under the age of 6 in Lincoln live in or near poverty, according to the nonprofit. Of these children, 54% of them live with single mothers, 36% live in a two-parent home and 10% live with single fathers.

"We have public school systems for K-12, but when people are at the lowest point, probably, in their earning power, they have young children, and yet they're expected to pay nearly college tuition prices for child care," Brandt said.

Lincoln Littles is able to help some families with tuition prices, but not everyone.

Raising subsidy reimbursement rates to reflect true costs of care is another thing that could make a big difference for providers, too, Brandt said.

Additionally, Lincoln Littles provides a survey employers can distribute to their staff to see how many employees have children under the age of 5 who may need child care and what barriers they are facing to accessing child care in order to find out what the business can do to help.

"Do they need to provide near-site child care partnerships? Do they need on-site child care?" Brandt said. "Or is it low-cost, no-cost ways to support staff such as flexibility in scheduling?"

First Five Nebraska is also looking at how the economics of child care affect both parents and providers. The organization has been working on a project to develop the tools needed to model the costs of running a child care program in comparison to the revenue brought in.

Many programs in the state are operating at a financial loss, even with prices being set so high, according to Medwick, the First Five Nebraska communications manager.

"This project is going to illuminate, on a quantifiable level, why the economics of child care simply don't add up and where we can focus our collective efforts to build a more sustainable child care system in Nebraska," Medwick said.

Advocacy is another way organizations are fighting the crisis.

We Care for Kids, an organization, coordinated by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, sponsored an entire week dedicated to advocating for child care and Nebraska's children at the end of September.

During the week, communities across the state participated by hosting events, spreading awareness about the issue and urging state leaders to come together and solve the child care crisis, said Kara Ficke, campaign manager.

"The support from all parts of our state has been tremendous," Ficke said. "This is truly a grassroots effort and the amount of awareness raised by having so many communities take part in We Care for Kids Week, celebrating the importance of early childhood education, brings us closer to finding solutions."

However, the end of the week didn't mean the end of the conversation, Ficke said.

The organization has plans to continue advocating for quality child care across Nebraska and encourages teachers and providers to share their stories to show the importance of the profession.

"Together, we are creating a surround-sound that Nebraska cares for kids," Ficke said, "and the more we care about bringing quality, affordable child care and early learning to all families, the more we ensure Nebraska thrives."

Reach Jenna Ebbers at 402-473-2657 or jebbers@journalstar.com.

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