The Legislative Landscape
Nebraska Eligibility Levels Are So Low Families Must Stay Very Poor
BY JILL BRUCKNER
Child care helps ensure that children are safe so parents can work. It’s often also the most expensive part of the family budget, with the cost of infant care exceeding that of in-state college tuition in Nebraska and other states. The child-care-subsidy program helps low-income working parents afford the high cost of child care, but Nebraska eligibility levels are so low that families often have to stay very poor in order to receive assistance.
Enter LB81. Introduced by District 13 State Sen. Tanya Cook in this 2015 session, this bill would allow families to transition off of child-care assistance at a higher income level—when they are more likely to be able to afford the full cost of care. The bill would allow for two years of transitional child-care assistance at up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Under current law, assistance would end at a maximum of 140 percent of the federal poverty level.
While continued attention to the working parent/child- care-expense crux is ongoing (Child Care Aware America estimates Nebraskans spend $7,747 annually per child on infant care alone), support of social services designed to both empower and assist is growing.
“After so many years of trying to reclaim the momentum from the Recession in 2008, and the constant economic reality of women earning less than men, I think improving child-care assistance is a great benefit for young mothers and young women who are trying to balance child care, domestic responsibilities and their own higher education,” says Sonya Stejskal, president of Nebraska State Council of Social Studies.
“This bill could help unburden those young mothers who still want to work for a better paying future for themselves and their children without having them scrape together the last dollars of monthly budgeted money for one more meal of Ramen noodles or another couple of gallons of gas,” Stejskal says. “Nebraska has to invest in the economic well-being of all children and their care and education, as well as the children’s caretakers.”
Further, Voices for Children, one of Nebraska’s premier organizations dedicated to promoting opportunities through advocacy, research and policy engagement, estimates nearly 35 percent of working families’ incomes is consumed by child-care expenses—a particularly weighty percentage (that translates into financial hardship) for the working poor.
“Omaha and the state of Nebraska have a significant issue with poverty,” says Tracy Wernsman, assistant principal and Title I coordinator at Omaha Bryan High School. “Access to quality, affordable child care is pivotal for those in poverty to take the risks and capitalize on the opportunities for growth and personal betterment. Services like Educare provide families in poverty with access to quality child care while allowing parents to make the connections to finish their educational pursuits,” Wernsman says.
A 23-year education veteran, Wernsman holds a master’s in secondary education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Like many area educators, she understands both the politics and the heartache faced by the working poor when balancing a job (or in some cases more than one job) and financial responsibilities.
“Education and job training are the keys to helping families get out of poverty. As individuals grow personally and professionally, while acquiring new skills and education, doors open for them and their families,” Wernsman says. “Removing some of the obstacles—such as offering quality, affordable day care—provides increased opportunities for people to take risks and seek out the opportunities to grow both personally and professionally.”
If passed, LB81 could provide some relief for parents wishing to advance professionally, but who fear they may lose much-needed benefits in the process.
After all, if children are Nebraska’s greatest resource, then it is the responsibility of the state’s adults—from parents, to educators, to legislators—to ensure they grow.