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Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation

With day-care centers shuttered or severely restricting enrollment, and school districts opting for remote learning, many women are finding they just can’t make their jobs work during the pandemic. That could have lasting consequences.

Mary Jobe holds her 13-month-old daughter Sadie Jobe while she has her temperature checked at Penn Quarter KinderCare in Washington, D.C. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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I have four children, one of them in elementary school. My school district just announced that its preferred plan is for school to operate in a hybrid fashion, alternating between in-person weeks and weeks of remote learning. Aside from my concerns about whether this plan is developmentally appropriate for young children who need regular routines, as a working parent I am utterly exhausted thinking about how we will manage.

It is not as if parents’ jobs can be put on hold every other week. As a college professor, I am fortunate to have a somewhat flexible schedule and can work from home a lot of the time. But roughly half of all essential workers (about 27 million) are women — mostly working in-person jobs in health care and community-based services — who do not have the option of working remotely.

‘I had to choose being a mother’: With no child care or summer camps, women are being edged out of the workforce

That is, if we can find child care. Already, the capacity of day-care centers has been reduced because of strict child-staff ratios and staffing requirements. Given that day cares historically operate on slim profit margins, these initial restrictions — coupled with the expense of purchasing personal protective equipment, or PPE, for staff and additional cleaning materials — could mean steep increases in tuition or going out of business. Some advocates anticipate a wave of permanent closures, leading to the loss of as many as 450,000 child-care slots — reducing the supply exactly when demand will spike because of widespread remote learning. Among working parents who reported needing care, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) had difficulty finding child care in the first months of the pandemic. Even relying on grandparents can be uncertain — particularly in states with high and/or resurging covid-19 caseloads.

Where does that leave working parents? With two colleagues, I conducted a national panel survey of 2,557 working parents between Mother’s Day (May 10) and Father’s Day (June 21) to find out. We learned that 13.3 percent of working parents had lost a job or reduced their hours because of a lack of child care. Working parents lost eight hours per week on average, or one full working day, to care for their children. In households with two working adults, we found an even greater loss of 14.6 hours per week, potentially representing a significant hit to total family income.

Some families found short-term child-care solutions by reducing hours, taking paid or unpaid leave, or alternating schedules with another adult in their household. However, these stopgap measures were based on the assumption that the fall would bring a return to school and organized child care and are simply unsustainable for the long term. In a recent survey, half of parents of young children in Massachusetts said they “will not be able to return to work without a consistent child-care solution.”

If history is any guide, it will be women who bear the brunt of the child-care crisis. Child-care access is strongly associated with maternal labor force participation, and child-care closures will probably lead to more costly career sacrifices for women. During the pandemic, there have been numerous stories about women quitting their jobs because of a lack of child care. One out of four women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of child care — twice the rate among men.

The big factor holding back U.S. economic recovery: Child care

For low-income and single moms, the pandemic has exacerbated the hard choices between spending a significant portion of their income on child care; finding a cheaper but potentially lower-quality option; or leaving the workforce to become a full-time caregiver. Our survey of working parents found that the loss of hours because of a lack of child care is greater for women of color, women without a college degree and women living in low-income households. Low-income, less educated and nonwhite households were also less likely to have backup child care.

The sheer magnitude of the disruption to child care during the pandemic will probably affect women’s labor force participation and earnings trajectories for decades to come. Research shows that women who drop out of the workforce to take care of children often have trouble getting back in, and the longer they stay out, the harder it is to return. Wage losses are much more severe and enduring when they occur in recessions, and workers who lose jobs now are less likely to have secure employment in the future. These effects accumulate over time as people who drop out of the labor force miss out on pay increases and promotions that come from long-term relationships with an employer.

This is not a small problem that will be easily solved. Parents with children under the age of 14 make up almost one-third of the country’s workforce, or roughly 50 million workers, meaning any economic recovery will rely on their continued participation or reentry into the labor force. The child-care industry consists of a network of nearly 675,000 small businesses, employing 1.5 million workers, that operate on razor thin margins even in good times.

Yet, the $3.5 billion allotted to the child-care industry in March was a fraction of the emergency aid offered to airlines under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or Cares Act. While Senate Republicans’ Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act, or “Heals Act,” package unveiled Monday includes $70 billion in aid for K-12 schools, two-thirds of the funds are restricted to in-person learning — a heavy-handed approach to addressing the nation’s child-care needs.

A far better solution would be to provide additional funding for day care, giving parents the flexibility they desperately need without dictating a one-size-fits-all solution across school districts.

If Congress does not act now, it is likely that there will be little left of the child-care system when the economic recovery is fully underway — and the consequences could set women back a generation.

As economist Claudia Goldin recently discussed, the current generation of college-educated women has come closer to attaining a career and a family at the same time than any other generation before it. Yet the pandemic has magnified gender inequality at home and in the workplace. Women are essential workers in both places. But the lack of options and availability of child care during this pandemic are forcing women, once again, into situations where they can choose only one or the other for years to come.

Alicia Sasser Modestino is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, where she studies issues related to gender and the labor market.