Alaska’s Child-Care Center for Legislators Highlights Challenges of Working Parents
Imagine you live in Bethel, Alaska with your spouse and two young children. You just got a new job doing work you find fulfilling and valuable. The catch: the job’s in Juneau, 965 miles away as the crow flies, and is seasonal — you would live in Juneau for only one third of the year. It’s a five-hour flight to Juneau, so coming home on weekends to see your family would be essentially out of the question. No roads lead to Juneau, and snow makes travel difficult. Your spouse works full-time. Would you take the job?
This is precisely the dilemma faced by Alaska state legislators, whose challenge balancing work and family is a particularly acute version of what many parents of young children experience. The state capital is geographically isolated and short on available child care. With just one space in daycare for every 4.2 child-care-aged children, Juneau’s child-care shortage is twice the national average, which itself is sizable. As an added annoyance, elementary schools in Juneau run on trimesters, while those in other districts run on quarters, making school-splitting difficult as well.
Balancing a career and a family is especially challenging for women, who are often responsible for a majority of child care duties. Forget leaning in: to get ahead in the Alaska state legislature, women have had to plunge forward, through gusts and blizzards, while searching for ad-hoc care for their children.
As a result, Alaska has become the only state that provides child care for state legislators and staffers. “Provides” is a relative term here. Daycare is not subsidized, but is available during the time in which the legislature is in session and conveniently located next door to the capitol building. The story of how the state with one of the most conservative legislatures in the country set up child care opportunities for its members and employees highlights the fundamental need to make child care available to all Americans.
Due to Juneau’s geographical isolation, the idea of moving the Alaskan capital to another location has, with varying decrees of seriousness, been advanced since Alaska became a state. Moving the capital would hurt Juneau economically, removing the city’s main industry, and politically, shifting the population such that southeast Alaska would lose a congressional seat.
To help avoid such a move, in February 2007, the city of Juneau bought the old Scottish Rite Masonic Temple across the street from the state capital from the local Freemasons and transferred the building to the State Legislature. In May 2009, the building was renovated and renamed the Thomas B. Stewart Legislative Office Building. With the ambivalent support of the Legislative Council, a child-care center in the Legislative Office Building opened in November of that year with spaces set aside for the children of legislators and government workers.
The idea of a child-care center for the children of state legislators and government workers generated significant controversy. According to one legislator I interviewed, some citizens misunderstood and believed that child care would be subsidized, which was not the case. One legislator recalled constituents deriding child care as a fluff issue and proclaiming that “a tanning salon and a nail salon would be next.” The Legislative Council only begrudgingly approved the child-care center after significant debate.
There is a consensus among Alaska state legislators and staffers whom I surveyed and talked to that the child-care center aids recruitment of parents with young children, especially women, to run for political office. One legislator said that the child-care center allows “for a broader spectrum of Alaskans to participate in the public process. Otherwise, only people who don’t have kids, or who are grandparents, can participate.”
Without child care, women (and men) with child-care responsibilities will be underrepresented in inflexible careers like government service, which often carry greater wealth and/or prestige than more family-friendly jobs. Available child care makes the Alaska legislature more representative of Alaska. Available—and perhaps subsidized—child care across the United States would make all levels of government, as well as the labor force, more representative as well.
Rachel Silbermann is a PhD candidate in political science and an ISPS Policy Fellow. Her research, which focuses on gender and political psychology, considers the decision to run for office as a career choice and how information provided by men and women candidates affects voters’ perceptions.