By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

New state child care task force faces bleak reality of Alaska's system

 


Alaskans are having a harder time accessing child care now than they were five years ago, an expert told a new task force charged by Gov. Mike Dunleavy with developing a plan to make child care in the state more available and affordable.

The task force, which Dunleavy formed in April, had its first public meeting on June 28 via Zoom with about 60 people, including the dozen task force members, in attendance. The group has until the end of December to deliver an initial plan to address the state’s child care challenges. At stake is the welfare of the state’s families — and its economy.

Stephanie Berglund, the CEO of thread, a resource and referral network for child care in the state, painted a bleak picture of the state’s child care landscape in her presentation to the other members of the task force.

Berglund described the challenges Alaskans face, adding that the difficulty accessing child care is even more pronounced in rural areas than urban ones. Most Alaskans live in a child care desert, an area without reasonable access to care, and more than 88,000 children in the state need child care or early education.

Berglund also highlighted that Alaska families shoulder the burden of child care and early education costs, which can be 17% to 34% of family income — more even than housing costs.

“Child care in Alaska costs more than college tuition,” Berglund said. “And this is of course at a time when parents are at the beginning of their careers and earning potential.”

According to her data, Alaska families spend about $223 million a year on early child care and learning. The state contributes about $36 million.

Berglund said that wages for child care providers are low, on average around $26,000 a year, and turnover in Alaska is nearly 50%.

As of this month, Berglund’s data shows that there are just over 400 licensed child care programs in the state. In the last three years, more than 100 have closed.

The state isn’t reopening child care centers as fast as they are closing. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 25 to 30 new programs would open a year. In the last six months only eight new programs have opened, but 36 have closed their doors, she said.

Berglund said that most parents report missing work hours due to child care issues and 7% of parents have left jobs because of them.

Kati Capozzi, leader of the Alaska Chamber, the state’s chamber of commerce, said that child care was among the top three concerns of her members. She said some chamber members “left the workforce during COVID and attempted to come back and it just didn’t work out because of lack of accessibility and lack of affordability, too.” She said many members have left the workforce because the cost of childcare has increased so dramatically, even in the last several months.

Task force co-chair Heidi Hedberg, the Alaska Department of Health commissioner, called the presentation “humbling” and “sobering.”

Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, the other co-chair, strongly encouraged public participation through the group’s yearlong project. The task force’s next meeting is July 12. Members of the public can register to attend online.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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