By Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson
This month, in-person school is about to start back up throughout Alaska for the first time in a year and a half. Many families face tough decisions about returning to work or how they will find, let alone afford child care. Yes, COVID-19 has impacted thousands of Alaskan families’ decisions in this aspect, but it is not a new problem Alaskans face. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
When I moved to Alaska, I was a single parent. Being a young Alaskan parent, finding affordable childcare was extremely difficult. There were barriers to access, and it was very expensive. Although my young son was of school age, I didn’t have someone who could care for him after school while I was at work to support the two of us. There were days I had to leave work early to be home to receive my child after school ended because affordable after-school options for him were minimal.
At the age of 9, he and I discussed whether or not he wanted to become a latchkey kid. At the time, he told me he wasn’t ready. Fortunately, I was able to get some assistance at the YMCA after-school program. Still, I had a stressful situation being at work and juggling the time he could spend at the YMCA before my workday ended.
At 10 years old, he felt ready and comfortable to come home after school and be by himself until I returned home from work. It was difficult and very stressful. But we laid out a pretty micromanaged schedule, so he was safe and kept himself busy and active. But this is not the remedy for most young families.
The way our economy operates nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to have one parent stay home and care for children unless you are very wealthy. Most homes take two incomes to survive — and then it still can be very tough.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we saw shutdowns and closures for many Alaska businesses. Access to child care plummeted, costs increased, and the health and safety of our homes and communities faced significant risks.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 75% of working parents in America have children under 6 years old staying at home, and only 10% of them are using child care centers. Fifty percent of parents who have not yet returned to work say childcare is the reason they have not returned. Of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men not to be working due to child care demands. About one in three of these women are not working because of child care, compared to 12.1% of men in the same age group.
This is not just a family issue but an economic issue as well. I have had many conversations with Alaskans who haven’t been able to return to work because child care access and cost are abysmal. Anchorage is in a significant recession, like many other cities and communities in this state. With access to affordable child care, we can get these economies moving again.
Alaska received over $1 billion of federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and it is just waiting to be funneled into our communities that desperately need help. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive infrastructure act that will create thousands of jobs to boost our infrastructure. Thousands of Alaskans will have to choose between working in these jobs or staying home to care for their children.
The opportunity to provide a new hope for young Alaska families is right in front of us. An opportunity to expand access and affordability with these federal dollars and provide a path for young Alaskans to get back into the workforce.
While we are down in Juneau and the fiscal policy group continues to work, we can also begin talking about utilizing these funds to put young Alaska families back to work and grow our economy. We can find ways to expand access to thousands of Alaskan families while ensuring its affordability.
Senator Elvi Gray-Jackson represents the Anchorage Midtown, Spenard, and UMed District in the Alaska State Senate.