Mar 30, 2024

New Kids Count report focuses on child care ‘crisis’ in Nebraska

Posted Mar 30, 2024 12:00 AM
 Members of Congress unveiled a bipartisan plan on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 that would again expand the child tax credit for families as well as provide business incentives. Shown are children at the Downtown Children’s Center in St. Louis. (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent)
Members of Congress unveiled a bipartisan plan on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 that would again expand the child tax credit for families as well as provide business incentives. Shown are children at the Downtown Children’s Center in St. Louis. (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent)

Cindy Gonzalez

Nebraska Examiner

OMAHA — Something stood out to Voices for Children in Nebraska while diving into the latest trends related to the well-being of youths. They call it the “child care crisis.”

In its annual Kids Count report, released Thursday, the group that for 37 years has been advocating for the youngest Huskers examined data for areas pertaining to health, economic stability, education and juvenile justice.

After doing so, leaders chose to highlight the rising cost and challenge of finding child care and the effect that has on workforce woes.

No silver bullet

Saying there is “no one silver bullet,” the team also offered recommendations that include state tax credits and grants to help open child care operations in areas of greatest need.

“This is a nuanced policy conversation that impacts not only family budgets, but the very fabric of our society,” said the research team led by executive director Juliet Summers and research coordinator Josh Shirk.

The report notes a 17% decline in the number of licensed child care facilities statewide from 2020 to 2022.

‘Harsher reality’

When looking at Nebraska’s current conditions for children and families, “a harsher reality was uncovered,” the 31st annual Kids Count report said.

That reality, the group said, is one of disparity and lack of equitable chance of success and opportunity for racial and ethnic minority groups.

The group has created an “Index of Race & Opportunity for Nebraska Children,” which offers an overall score for each racial and ethnic group as well as a score for more specific areas.

Black youths scored the lowest, 20 out of a possible 100, followed by American Indians, 24; Hispanics, 59; multiracial youths, 64; Asian Pacific Islanders, 73; Whites, 94.

Factors driving the lower scores include median family income and share living in low poverty areas. 

As of 2022, the last year of available data, nine of the state’s 93 counties had zero licensed child care facilities, and 23 counties failed to meet the licensed child care needs for at least half their young children.

Child care surpasses college tuition

In its 83-page report, Voices for Children cited a meeting in central Nebraska where staff members fielded fears from participants that their towns would not survive unless they gained better access to child care.

Even when care was available, the group said, the expense strained budgets. The report contained research showing: The average annual price of center-based child care for one infant in 2021 was $11,068, which absorbed 10% of the median income of a married Nebraska couple and 33% of a single mother’s income.

To punctuate that cost, the group pointed out how a year of center-based child care could surpass a year’s worth of tuition and fees at public universities in Nebraska. 

“A full year of tuition and fees (this year) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was cheaper than sending an infant to center-based care in 2021,” the report said, offering a price comparison chart.

Pandemic woes linger

Shirk said that while all areas of child well-being were affected by COVID-19 shutdowns, the early child care and education system took a particularly tough hit and hasn’t fully recovered. 

He said there was a 30% turnover rate among Nebraska’s child care workers from 2022 to 2023.

“This is one of the lowest paying jobs in Nebraska, yet a very high stress job,” he said.

To get child care on track will take investments and policy improvements, he said.

The report notes progress in recent years. In 2023, for example, Nebraska passed the Child Care Tax Credit Act, which offers families a refundable credit of up to $2,000 per child enrolled in care. Tiered according to household income, the credit is offered to parents or caregivers with household incomes up to $150,000 and is capped at $15 million statewide per fiscal year.

‘Falling short’

Stable care at a young age sets kids up for success, the researchers said. In a well-oiled system, parents would be able to access care at an affordable price, providers could operate businesses and child care employees would receive pay enabling them to support their own families.

“Unfortunately, Nebraska’s early child care and education system is falling short on all these standards,” the report said.

It said that nationally, the number of employed persons who missed work due to child care problems doubled in 202o and remained “well above” pre-pandemic levels as of 2022.

“If parents can not find affordable care, then labor participation becomes harder for them to justify,” the report said.


Among recommendations for state policy-makers:

  1. Promote incentives for providers to start child care operations in “child care deserts.”
  2. Ensure that subsidy payments reflect providers’ true costs of operation. That includes updating the public subsidy program to pay providers based on enrollment rather than daily attendance.
  3.  Keep or increase current gross income eligibility for the state child care subsidy. Currently, the subsidy is available for families with household incomes of up to 185% of the federal poverty level. That eligibility level is set to sunset in 2026, and Voices for Children recommends eliminating that sunset date so that eligibility won’t return to 130% of the federal poverty level.

The research for the Kids Count report is funded in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and numerous local foundations and entities.

Voices for Children describes itself as an independent, nonpartisan advocate for youth that is not funded by state, federal city or county dollars, “which allows us to speak loud and clear” when shining light on needs of children.