The pandemic put child care opportunities in jeopardy.
Former Gov. Bill Walker in a Ketchikan gubernatorial campaign visit this week mentioned that, next to housing, the lack of child care is one of two topics about which Alaskans are most concerned.
State statistics show that the number of child care providers plummeted in Alaska during the pandemic. Like other business and industry, it has yet to fully recover. But, even then, before the novel coronavirus spread, child care proved to be a challenge.
About 61% of Alaskans live in a “child care desert,” according to a 2018 study, where children outnumber available providers by a ratio of three to one.
The figures were almost exactly the same for low-income and high-income Alaska families.
The situation was exacerbated during COVID-19 because child care facilities make small profits, experience high turnover as a result of low pay and lack of benefits, and amongst that, deal with a slew of government regulations. Plus, like other businesses, child care facilities made adjustments for COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace — fewer work days and reduced hours.
Earlier this year, a Household Pulse Survey found over a 30-day period that 4.1% of Alaskans with children between 5 and 11 had worked fewer hours because of child care challenges. About 2.3% had quit working to stay home with children. If the child was younger than 5, according to the survey, the percentages increased to 12.9% and 5%, respectively.
These work decreases translate into a loss of economic productivity in Alaska. A 2021 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report shows that the state’s lack of child care cost Alaska’s economy about $165 million a year, most of it as a result of absences and turnover.
Alaska had about 123,445 children under the age of 12 in 2020, according to the Alaska Economic Trends magazine published in April. That included 48,972 who were younger than 5. At the time, Alaska had more than five times more children than it had documented slots for child care.
The number of monthly slots ranged between 16,595 in 2010 to 30,756 in 2015. During the pandemic, the availability declined as the number of employed child care workers dropped about 13% in Alaska.
And, since March of 2020, the magazine states, almost a fifth of Alaska’s licensed child care facilities have closed.
But Alaska witnessed a 3.8% increase in child care employment the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
Like other types of businesses, the numbers are slowly showing a return to pre-pandemic numbers at nursery schools, preschools and other pre-kindgarten centers, child day care services, Head Start programs, and babysitting services in homes.
Still, the challenges for child care providers remain — keeping workers who will work for the wage that is available.
Alaska’s average pay for a child care worker is about $14.40 an hour or just under $30,000 a year. In Ketchikan, according to the magazine, the annual price for infant child care is $9,492.
But with all of the other rising costs for both child care providers and families, the child care problem is exacerbated.
It results in more Alaskans staying home with their children. Sixty-five percent of low-income Alaska households provide day care at home, according to the Trends magazine. It’s 33% for high-income families.
The federal government enacted The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to help offset child care costs. It totaled $24 billion, of which Alaska was to distribute almost $100 million in 2021. But, by October, only $5 million had been dispersed.
For Alaska’s economy to fully recover and thrive moving out of the pandemic, clearly child care concerns will have to be addressed. In part, this explains the lack of a workforce and the myriad of “Help Wanted” signs throughout Alaska’s communities.