A Lincoln woman I know loves young children.
She loves their first words, their hugs, even their sticky fingers. Up until last year, she worked at a child care center, she and her husband barely supporting a family of four. Gradually, however, while facing her own rising child care costs, her wages simply could not keep up, and Holly left the workforce to stay home.
Childcare providers explain the reality of a successful local economy like this: Child care workers are the workforce behind our larger, community workforce. Without it, the rest of us cannot go to work.
It is time for our community to face a simmering, quiet crisis: Child care is necessary to keep the broader workforce viable, the lifeline for families and most especially for women to stay employed. But it is a fragile, fractured system that could completely shatter if we don’t immediately intervene, locally and nationally.
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Lincoln Littles – a network of passionate advocates focused on ensuring access to quality early childhood care and education – led the formation of a communitywide Childcare Workforce Committee that conducted a recent local survey focused on workforce challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Most Lincoln early childhood centers remained open during COVID years, in fact supporting children while schools were closed. But the pandemic exposed and exacerbated an invisible connection between child care and the economy.
When we conducted our survey, 1,500 Lincoln children were on waiting lists for early child care – unfortunately, at the same time local centers were struggling with a serious staff exodus.
Those local findings reflect the national landscape: Amidst such staff shortages and scarce openings in early child care, we often force our families with young children to make impossible choices – between spending a significant portion of their income on child care or leaving work to stay home.
A recent Harvard Business Review noted: “When the COVID-19 pandemic removed the safety net of schooling and employee-paid child care for working families, the damage was cataclysmic. Without a stable form of child care as part of the business infrastructure, the world stopped working for the vast majority of working parents around the world.”
An estimated 50 million workers – one-third of the U.S. workforce – has a child under 14 in their household. In Lincoln/Lancaster County, 75% of families with children under 6 have both parents in the workforce.
However, since February 2020 alone more than 2.3 million parents – mostly moms – have been driven out of work, often due to factors such as limited access to or the high cost of child care. Over the past two decades, family wages have generally remained flat while the cost of childcare has more than doubled, an increasingly crushing expense for families.
When the Childcare Workforce Committee conducted the local survey, Lincoln had 117 child care centers and 295 licensed home providers offering critically fewer slots than needed. About 300 early child care providers were invited to participate in the survey and 94 completed it (60% center-based, 40% licensed home providers).
• At the time of the survey, 165 early childcare jobs in Lincoln remained unfilled.
• Reasons for staff shortages cited on the survey ranged from low wages to lack of benefits to burnout and exhaustion. In 2021 the median wage for child care workers in Lincoln was $11.04 an hour ($22,980 a year) – while the living wage in Lincoln was estimated at $16.28 an hour ($33,862 a year).
We need a healthy workforce to keep our community thriving, and the early child care workforce serves as the backbone for the stability of that broader labor force.
Yet, first steps to help stabilize early childhood are not all that complicated. As a result of suggested solutions cited in the survey, the Lincoln Littles/Childcare Workforce Committee developed basic recommendations for our community:
• A public workforce dashboard.
• Intentional childcare-provider collaboration to recruit workers.
• Expanding practicum experiences.
• Hiring a community navigator to coordinate the endeavor.
Despite fierce challenges, when the survey inquired about the outlook of child care the vast majority of providers continued to maintain hope, noting both the emotional and economic impact they have on children and families.
I share that hope. I have faith our community will work collectively to successfully address this issue and create a stronger fabric of support for our youngest residents – for our work force and economy – for the future of Lincoln.
Anne Brandt is executive director of Lincoln Littles.