Willard Community Center

Three- and 4-year-olds enjoy snack time in the Willard Community Center child-care program in early 2017.

Journal Star file photo

Nebraska’s day care providers and early childhood educators face low wages, a lack of benefits and high stress and often aren't sufficiently educated, according to the latest study by the University of Nebraska’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Center-based providers fare the worst, making a median annual income of $18,706 — nearly $7,800 below the poverty line for a family of four — and fewer than half receive health insurance or other benefits.

Home-based providers make a median annual income of nearly $26,000, although that equates to $11 an hour because nearly 80 percent work more than 40 hours a week.

Early childhood educators — preschool teachers in school settings and those who teach kindergarten through third grade — make substantially more.

Their median incomes are $36,000 and $41,000, respectively, and their salaries increase with additional education, unlike home-based and center-based day care providers.

Nearly 20 percent of early childhood educators surveyed hold second jobs, and 27 percent of home-based providers and 20 percent of center-based providers use public assistance.

“Lack of livable wages and benefits is very, very dramatic,” said Sam Meisels, executive director of the Buffett Institute. “Making ends meet while you work in child care is very, very difficult. This is a very significant set of problems we see.”

The study included more than 1,600 day care providers and early childhood educators interviewed between May 2015 and February 2016, the largest survey of Nebraska providers. The results are similar to national surveys, Meisels said.

Other findings included a lack of diversity. Nearly all providers are white despite an increasingly diverse clientele, and between 8 and 11 percent of providers and early childhood teachers reported symptoms of depression.

The institute has conducted other surveys and reports on Nebraskans’ experiences and perceptions of child care in an effort to gather information for policymakers and others, and to draw attention to the challenges of early childhood education.

“What we wanted to do (with the latest study) is set a baseline, an empirically defensible baseline of everyday challenges and the demographic makeup of people who work with young children,” Meisels said.

Nearly 80 percent of Nebraska children 5 years old and younger are in some form of paid child care, and 62 percent of mothers of infants are working, according to the Buffett Institute.

“The way we’re responding to the need is not appropriate,” Meisels said.

The study also saw positives: Teachers have an average of 12 years or more experience, which demonstrates a commitment to their work. And most teachers with degrees have them in education-related fields.

But there were gaps in education.

While nearly all preschool and K-3 teachers have college degrees, less than half of center-based teachers or home-based providers do.

Just 46 percent of center-based teachers and 23 percent of home-based providers have bachelor's degrees. Generally, providers in urban areas had higher levels of education than their rural counterparts.

A small percentage of day care providers are seeking certification or are working toward getting a teaching certificate, but few know of or use state scholarships designed for teacher education, the survey found.

Jennifer Baumann, who has run a home-based day care in Chadron for 18 years, is an advocate of training and education. State grants helped her earn her certification and she’s making use of tuition assistance programs to earn an early childhood education degree.

She first got into child care when her children were young because she couldn't find a job where the hours allowed her to spend time with her family.

She quickly learned it was something she loved, and went all-in.

“I’d come to the conclusion this would be my profession,” she said.

Her education and training have helped her to establish herself as a quality provider and ultimately allowed her to increase what she charges.

“It allows me to justify to myself and my families that I’m worth what I’m worth.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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