COZAD — The discussion at the latest Community Chat at the Wilson Public Library centered around the lack of child care options and how it is impacting economic development in the 100th Meridian community.
Wilson Public Library Director Laurie Yocom said before the event on Wednesday, Jan. 11, that during the library’s recent accreditation process they learned from the community that residents did not always have accurate timely facts about what was going on in the community.
To help address this, the library reached out to city leaders in Cozad to speak on current issues and where residents could offer their thoughts and opinions.
The Community Chats in January were conducted by Jen McKeone, Executive Director of the Cozad Development Corporation. She spoke about the pressing need for child care in the community and its wider impacts.
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McKeone said the need for child care has been a “burning topic,” recently, but issues surrounding child care reach all the way back when she was on a board in Gothenburg 25 years ago.
There are a myriad of issues, including the lack of child care options for parents, providers are being paid minimum wage but are expected to prepare children for the rigors of public education, so staffing is hard to find.
According to Child Care in State Economic update from 2019, there has been a 20 percent decrease in family child care homes since 2010, resulting in fewer choices, including lower costing options, for families.
One idea is for providers to charge more for their care, but the issue is that most families are already paying an inordinate amount of their income for child care.
Even before the pandemic, the annual cost of child care for families was $12,480 in 2018, over 20 percent of the household income, according to the state report.
McKeone said currently there are 30 children, including 12 infants, that are on waiting lists to access child care in Cozad.
The result for families that cannot access regular and reliable child care is absenteeism from work or having to stop working all together to care for their children. McKeone said that is when the lack of child care becomes an economic development issue.
McKeone listed numerous examples of how the lack of child care has impacted businesses in the 100th Meridian. Cozad Community Hospital has had difficulty recruiting people to town, the former Cozad Superintendent had to take her grandson to Gothenburg to access child care and a woman drove over an hour and 15 minutes each day taking children to providers in Cozad and Gothenburg.
McKeone said if a child from Cozad is taken to child care in Lexington, Gothenburg or another community, when they start school, they will more than likely choose to option into that school.
According to a 2022 study by the Nebraska Public Power District on the economic impact of inadequate child care in Dawson County, the cost of the lack of child care to families is $5.2 million, this includes foregoing work, remaining part time, absenteeism and turnover.
This also has an impact on county businesses, according to the same study; the cost to employers is $2.6 million. McKeone said it limits the ability of businesses to attract talent and families to the area and hampers people’s options to enter the workforce.
The CDC held their own survey about child care earlier this year and it found 82 percent of families with child care said it was, “extremely or somewhat difficult” to find arrangements for their children. Half of those were happy with the service but the other half said they are not satisfied, saying it was the only service available.
McKeone used the example of a three legged stool to describe the situation in communities, on one hand is the number of businesses a community can support, next is the amenities in the town, child care included and the final is housing. When one lacks, it affects all of the others.
The issue is multifaceted with no simple answer to fix it. However, McKeone said it is imperative to support the existing child care providers in Cozad as losing any of them would further decrease capacity. It is also apparent that child care capacity needs to be increased in the community by adding more in-home day cares or perhaps another child care center.
McKeone noted how more pressing the situation would be if Cozad Community Schools did not offer the After Zone program that hosts an average of 120 students each day after school.
When asked about her vision, if resources were not an issue, McKeone said she would want to expand child care capacity through a new child care center and more in-home daycares, enough to care for 120 children and be able to pay staff above minimum wage while not adding to the cost for families.
At the moment, the CDC is “working with the willing,” those who want to help expand child care. A number of individuals are forming a steering committee regarding child care and plan to write letters of support for those who wish to expand capacity.
McKeone said while the issue is daunting, the Cozad community shows up when there is a problem and works together to solve issues.