Stakeholders 2.27

Mike Feeken of First Five Nebraska gives a presentation to a group of stakeholders Feb. 18.

The Gothenburg Early Childhood Learning Coalition, in partnership with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and First Five Nebraska, hosted a stakeholders lunch on Feb. 28 to discuss the impact that early childhood services have on the economy of a community. It’s a series of dots that most of us probably don’t think to connect.

The reality is, childcare and early education opportunities not only affect parents of young children, but the community as a whole - both now and in the future. That is the call to action that Mike Feeken of First Five Nebraska bestows upon everyone in every community he meets with.

Unlike many of his counterparts in the room, Feeken does not have a background in early education - or childhood at all. Rather, he comes from an economic development history.

“I want to create a dialogue between the business and community leaders, and early childhood,” said Feeken.

Feeken shared some interesting statistics to reinforce the concept that early childhood is an economic development issue. Working parents often struggle to find quality child care, but what happens if they drop out of the workforce? With nearly 58,000 available, unfilled jobs in Nebraska, that’s a serious obstacle for local and statewide economic growth.

According to a study called “Want to Grow” conducted in 2019, child care costs the U.S. $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue. Recent estimates place the cost to a business of replacing an employee at 20%-33% of their annual salary.

Work on early childhood policy began at the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation in 2007. In 2011, the policy division became a separate entity and was rebranded as First Five Nebraska. That organization has made it one of their missions to educate Nebraskans on the cost to a community to NOT have quality childcare and early childhood options.

Child care is deemed affordable if it accounts for 7% or less of a family’s total income. The average cost for center based infant care in Nebraska is $12,272 a year. That childcare cost figure is 18% of the annual income of the average Nebraska family. More close to home, the average cost for infant care is 23% of the average income of a Dawson County family, and 17% for a family in Gothenburg. A parent working full-time at Nebraska’s $9.00 per hour minimum wage may spend 67% of his or her total income on infant care.

In a recent statewide survey presented by First Five Nebraska, 50% of parents said they had missed a full day of work, been late for work, left work earlier than normal, or had been distracted while at work because of child care issues. In that same survey, 32% of parents indicated that they had either turned down a job offer or promotion, turned down a job assignment, reduced their regular work hours, or quit a job because of problems with child care.

“When it comes to economic development we talk about, what if our largest employer left town? But what would happen if we lost all of our town’s child care providers?” said Feeken.

For many local families child care is a very real issue. “We have a lot of wonderful things to celebrate in Gothenburg, but we also have a lot of households who are struggling and living paycheck to paycheck,” said GECLC community coordinator Nichole Hetz. She said these issues are what prompted the Gothenburg community members to come together and form the coalition, and is what the group is striving to address for families.

Feeken shared that some of the ways early childhood impacts our current workforce is by allowing new people to enter the workforce; providing stability so our current workforce can stay engaged in their work; and increasing workforce productivity by decreasing absenteeism. Early childhood is a critical component in how communities market themselves as desirable places to grow a career or business.

Hetz said the recent Service Array survey day completed in Gothenburg is the first step toward developing a plant to identify, then rectify the early childhood issues within the community. Just this week community members in Lexington met for the same purpose, and the Cozad community will meet in late March. All of the information gathered from those three meetings will be compiled into a report to be presented in April.

She also informed the stakeholders of a brand new project just being launched by GECLC. The Community Partners Scholarship Fund will help families who may not qualify for other assistance and who are struggling to meet the cost of early childhood programs.

“It’s just one more opportunity to help our little ones be better prepared,” said Hetz.

Contact Ellen Mortensen at ellen@gothenburgleader.com or call 308.536.6499