The work is important and arduous, yet it comes with low pay, high stress and rarely offers benefits.

Jobs in childcare and early childhood education are critical because they shape the future, Nebraska’s children, at a peak formative time in their lives. Yet many of the workers tasked with their care – particularly the youngest kids – work for wages near the poverty line.

Lincoln and Nebraska as a whole pride themselves as being great places to raise a family. To that end, stories abound of native Nebraskans who returned home to have children after pursuing careers out of state – this is the Good Life, after all.

But that is incongruous with the salaries and general lack of benefits received by the workers who take care of those children.

A study released this month by the University of Nebraska’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute found that center-based providers make an annual median income of $18,706 – nearly $7,800 below the poverty line for a family of four – while fewer than half receive health insurance or other benefits. Home-based providers make more money, with a median of $26,000, but nearly all work overtime, deflating the hourly wage to roughly $11.

Despite the growing need for these services, workers’ pay and benefits are limited enough to where a disproportionate number for any industry need a helping hand. About a fifth of the 1,600 providers surveyed hold second jobs, while a similar percentage uses public assistance – meaning Nebraskans writ large are helping cover the shortfalls of these wages.

Not only are more Nebraska mothers working outside the home than ever before, but the percentage of children in this state attending a paid childcare facility has even outstripped that figure. The Buffett Institute reports nearly 80 percent of Nebraska children age 5 or younger attend some paid childcare, while 62 percent of mothers of infants hold a job.

With continued demand for the services of childcare providers, the need to re-examine the wages and working conditions for their employees only grows.

The external stresses of this industry no doubt manifest themselves in the environment at some childcare facilities. Children thrive in positive environments – and workers must be able to leave some difficult baggage at the door to provide that.

Nebraskans need to take a closer look at this industry and the barriers faced by childcare workers. In turn, we must take steps to improve this system so vital to the state’s future.

Childcare is a significant expense for working parents in Nebraska, and it serves as an investment in the long run. The workers who provide care to advance that future need an investment, too.

— Journal Star, Sept. 16, 2017

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