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Report: High-quality child care means raising wages of workers often paid below poverty level

Report: High-quality child care means raising wages of workers often paid below poverty level

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Early childhood education report

Sue Wambaugh, owner of Wambaugh's Wigwam child care, reads to siblings Bode (left) and Laney Knudsen in January. Wambaugh has run a child care business in her home for 43 years.

For the past 43 years, Sue Wambaugh has run a child care business from her Lincoln home, a passion that required her and her husband to start a property rental business on the side.

“Having a second career helped us make it,” said Wambaugh, who works 11-hour days with no paid vacation, retirement or sick leave. “It’s why I’ve been in it so long and a real good reason why (others) leave the field. Not because they want to, because they are forced. They can’t make ends meet.”

Wambaugh’s story isn’t unique: Her and her colleagues’ experiences are embedded in statistics that comprise more than 100 pages of a report to be released Thursday on the challenges facing the early childhood workforce.

The report is a culmination of three years of work by the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, which concludes providing high-quality child care to all the state's families who need it would cost $450 million more than Nebraskans now spend.

And lots of families need that care.

“Nebraska leads the nation in the number of women who are in the workforce with children under age 6,” said Sam Meisels, executive director of the Buffett Institute, which convened the commission of more than 40 public- and private-sector leaders.

The report found that more than 75% of children under age 6 live in homes where all adults work, yet 84% of Nebraska counties lack sufficient child care to meet the needs of those families. Eleven counties have no licensed child care facilities.

“That means people are patching things together, and patching isn’t really good enough for our children,” said Marjorie Kostelnik, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who co-chaired the commission.

Couple that need with other findings — wages often at or below the poverty line and a lack of benefits that leads to high turnover in the child care workforce — and it’s clear Nebraska has a perception problem, Meisels said.

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Research shows nearly 90% of brain growth takes place during the first five years of life, an opportunity to make the greatest lifelong impact on a child. That research also shows the most important building block for brain development is “reliable, positive and consistent interactions” with caring adults.

But wages and benefits of those who provide that care haven’t risen accordingly.

In 2016, the report found, the median annual income for in-home providers was $25,980 and just $18,706 for those in community-based programs — nearly $1,400 below the federal poverty line for a family of three.

Wages for center-based providers are half that of school-based early childhood teachers, even though the age and developmental needs of the children are the same, the report found.

Wambaugh, who raised five of her own children, said during the time she’s been in business, requirements for early childhood providers have included more training and education so care is more focused on helping children developmentally.

Wambaugh went back to school on nights and weekends, ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree. She reluctantly raised her rates, because she knew families can’t always afford to pay more.

She had to stop accepting child care subsidies because they didn't cover her costs. 

Of the $460 million spent on child care in Nebraska, 52% is borne by families, 17% comes from state funds, 29% from federal funds and 2% from businesses and philanthropies.

Providing high-quality care for all families — including adequately compensating providers, offering professional development and providing administrative licensing and monitoring —  would cost an estimated $912 million a year, the report found.

That’s a gap of $452 million, which the commission recommends closing by 2030 by phasing in increases in both public and private funding.

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Ultimately, it would mean an increase of $109 million in state funds, $191 million in federal funds and $153 million in private funds. Those estimates assume an increase in the number of families using child care.

It would not necessarily require families pay more, the report said, because the estimates are based on a sliding-fee scale based on income.

There's a payback for communities: For every dollar spent on high-quality child care, a community yields a return of $4, the report said, because of savings in social services, special education and the criminal justice system, as well as increased earning potential of the children. 

The report will be released at a Thursday event expected to draw 400 people, including those live-streaming the event from 12 communities.

Wambaugh, who now cares for children of parents she cared for when they were young, said she supports more rigorous requirements for providers, but better compensation must follow so they can afford to do what they love.

“You don’t do the job for the money,” she said. “You do it for the personal fulfillment.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist


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Local government reporter

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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