Ensuring Nebraska is a great place to live and raise a family is of the utmost importance to me. My efforts on the Bellevue City Council were dedicated to addressing quality of life issues that had been previously ignored, and I’ve continued these efforts throughout my public service in the Nebraska Legislature. From these experiences, it is clear to me that early childhood is a pivotal time in a child’s development and high-quality early childhood experiences are crucial to improving children and families’ well-being. To achieve this, we must make meaningful investments early in a child’s life.
Investing Early Works
Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, has dedicated much of his career to analyzing the economic effects of high-quality investments during the years of early childhood. Across multiple analyses, Heckman found for every $1 spent on high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children, Nebraska taxpayers can expect a 13% per annum return on investment, with – perhaps not surprisingly – the greatest returns associated with programs at the earliest stages of life. These returns come in the form of both immediate and long-term savings across the education and social service landscapes (reductions in retention, special education, welfare supports, and incarceration) and increases in employment and tax-paying ability, just to name a few.
The power of early interventions has been demonstrated here in Sarpy County. Through the Sixpence Early Learning initiative, Papillion-LaVista public schools serves at-risk infants and toddlers through a weekly home visiting program. The initiative began in 2015 and is funded by a Sixpence grant, with matching funding from the district and community. Analysis shows that children with exceedingly serious developmental hazards can approach age-level expectations across a range of developmental domains, including physical, social, cognitive, and academic benchmarks, just by participating in Sixpence programming.
Implications for the State Economy
Investing early not only has a meaningful impact on children’s short- and long-term success but also significantly affects our state’s economy. 76% of children under five in our state have all available parents in the workforce, making child care essential for most families. Even before the pandemic, the child care industry was a critical piece of Nebraska’s economy, with an estimated total economic impact of $662 million.
The current health crisis has served to further emphasize how closely tied the child care industry is to the economic success of the state. According to a recent survey conducted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, over 51% of Nebraska parents surveyed reported that they had to miss work because of child care issues.
Lack of child care not only limits parents’ options to work but also negatively affects their employers. The Appropriations Committee found the majority of employers (71%) reported their workers have been late, left work, or missed work because of child care problems. As consumers, we’ve experienced the impact lack of child care has on the business community, with staffing shortages and reduced hours affecting us all. To counter this, we must invest in early childhood to support young working families and attract new talent to Nebraska.
Opportunities for Nebraska
Investments in early learning experiences, much like our K-12 system, must foster quality, fairness, and equity. Currently, many investment opportunities in early childhood exist that, once implemented, would make a huge difference in the lives of Nebraska families with young children.
For example, only about 6% of Nebraskan families can afford infant care (defined as 7% of a family’s income), with the current cost averaging 19.2% of a family’s median income in Nebraska at $12,571 annually. This is a significant financial strain on young families. While a small number of families already have access to state subsidies, we have the opportunity to expand the program to ensure child care is affordable for all Nebraskan families.
Furthermore, despite the critical role child care professionals play in our state economy, they are severely undercompensated. The poverty rate for early educators in Nebraska is over 29%, much higher than for Nebraska workers in general (10%) and 11 times higher than K-8 teachers (3%). Child care professionals have the knowledge and skills to foster the healthy growth and development of our youngest children but are often driven out of the field due to low pay and lack of benefits. Investing in early educators is ultimately an investment in our children.
Prosperity for all Nebraskans is a key issue for me, but we cannot achieve this without addressing the needs of families with young children. We must invest in early childhood and address the high cost of care and low compensation for educators in order to ensure all children are given the best start in life possible. Together, we can make Nebraska a great place to raise a family.