While affordable housing is a big problem for many Juneau residents, child care is of equal or greater concern for many families.
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Some families pay more for child care each month, depending on the number of children and their ages, than they do for rent or a mortgage. And vacancies in child care centers are lower than they have been in years.
"It's something that is under the radar, except for young families," said Barbara Belknap, president of the Juneau chapter of the National Organization for Women. "There are people who have chosen not to move to Juneau or have left Juneau because they can't find child care."
Some citizens, such as Belknap and other Juneau NOW members, are going so far as to call it a crisis, and are working to find solutions to make child care in Juneau more accessible and affordable.
Joy Lyon, executive director for the Association for the Education of Young Children-Southeast Alaska, said child care has become an increasing problem in Juneau.
"It's been such a chronic crisis for so long, but now it has definitely escalated to a crisis-crisis," she said.
Child-care costs can be staggering for working families in Juneau, Lyon said. According to the association's statistics, the average cost for a preschool-aged child enrolled in child care full-time is $590 a month. Rates increase for infants, she said.
"If a family has two children in child care, they can be paying almost as much as their rent," Lyon said.
The local chapter of NOW hosted a meeting last month with stakeholders, local leaders and parents to discuss the problem and potential solutions.
Affordable and quality child care is an important economic indicator for Juneau, Belknap said. She said child-care providers have a hard time making a living, parents have problems affording child care and the number of vacancies are limited.
"There's just this critical shortage of child care spaces in Juneau," she said.
Lyon said AEYC maintains a database through a child care resource and referral grant administered by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services that tracks vacancies, rates and other information.
In 11 years on the job, Lyon said the child-care vacancy rates in Juneau are lower than she has ever seen them.
"We've lost over 200 licensed and approved spaces in the last year, since last July, in Juneau alone," she said.
Lyon and Belknap said multiple factors have led to this, including the high cost of running child care, government regulations and the lack of an increase in public assistance rates for child care.
According to census data, as many as 1,500 child-care-age children in Juneau are from dual-income houses. According to Lyon, the total child-care capacity in Juneau is slightly more than 600, which "is not meeting the need out there."
Ann Lind has been running a state-licensed child-care business out of her home for the past seven years. State regulations allow her to care for eight children, three of whom may be under the age of 30 months.
She said it is not a surprise that there are fewer and fewer child-care options in Juneau, due to the costs associated with running a child-care center and the government regulations in place.
"It can be expensive to run," Lind said. "Plus all the things you need to provide in regards to safety, toys, you name it. Because you have kids in your house for 10 or more hours a day, you need to provide for the children's needs. And that all comes out of your pocket."
The many government regulations in place are also likely leading to fewer providers in town, she said.
"The regulations just continue to get more and more every year," Lind said.
Lyon said the AEYC is hearing more stories about people operating unlicensed child-care centers out of their homes in Juneau.
"We're concerned about that because there is a reason why people are licensed," she said.
The Juneau Assembly has listed the child-care problem as one of its priorities this year, Assembly member Sara Chambers said. There needs to be more coordination with the state and the city to work on making it easier for more quality and affordable child-care centers to operate in Juneau, she said.
"Certainly we would like to know who the child-care providers are so we can ensure that their practices are legal and ethical," Chambers said.
To compound the issue, Lyon said, the child-care assistance rates have not been increased since 2001, while the cost of living in Juneau continues to increase.
"Programs are not able to charge the full cost of offering child care because parents can't afford to pay that amount," she said.
Belknap said federal grants are drying up for child care at a time when more subsidies are needed to offset costs.
"It needs support. It needs subsidies," she said. "It's just not a money-making endeavor, but people can't do without it."
As a mother of a 4-year-old in child care part-time, Chambers said she knows firsthand the financial burden child care can have on working families. She is also the moderator of a parents' Web group with more than 250 families, which she said generates a lot of discussion over child-care concerns. Many parents are concerned about the lack of options and the cost, she said.
"When you compare that with affordable housing costs we have in town, sometimes families are paying more for child care than they are for their mortgage each month," she said.
The solution to the problem is not as easy as having one parent stay home with the kids like in years past, Belknap said.
"It's hard to live on one income in Juneau, and a single mom doesn't have a choice," she said.
Child care is a major issue in Juneau that needs to be addressed because it affects the entire community, Belknap said.
"It's a key factor for hundreds of families on whether they stay in Juneau or leave," she said. "So it's important for the community as a whole to give it the weight it deserves. It's under the radar and it shouldn't be."
Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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