A Women’s History Month look at the pandemic parenting crisis
When schools, childcare centers and workplaces began closing due to COVID-19 last year, life changed overnight for millions of working parents – especially mothers. Some became full-time caregivers while working from home. Essential workers scrambled to find childcare. Those who lost jobs struggled to find work while juggling kids. Those families with limited access to childcare or inflexible jobs before the pandemic, disproportionately people of color, were, and remain, hit hardest.
The pandemic also decimated the childcare workforce and industry. A July 2020 survey found that, as demand spiked upward, the already limited access cratered painfully: 86% of childcare centers were serving fewer children, with enrollment down an average of 67%. These disruptions were especially pronounced and difficult for workers who rely on limited access to no- or low-cost childcare options.
In short, Women’s History Month looks quite different this year than it did last year. The childcare crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic has driven about 700,000 parents of children under five out of the workforce, roughly two-thirds of them women. By late July, more than half of parents of young children who used childcare before the pandemic were without childcare or had found a different provider, disproportionately affecting women. Mothers of older children did not fare much better: their full-time employment dropped 20 percentage points, compared to 10 percentage points among fathers. Between February and September, nonparticipation in the labor force because of home or family care rose more for women (2.5 percent or 700,000 people) than for men (0.6 percent or 150,000 people).
Access to childcare still hasn’t returned to normal, and has emerged as one of the most frequent barriers to reemployment, as noted by the diverse group of employers, worker advocates and policy experts brought together by Convergence Center for Policy Resolution to identify pathways for reconnecting America’s workers with jobs. Deep differences of opinion compete over how to best address the childcare issue; solutions will require multiple stakeholders to find common ground that centers on families and their needs.
Practical solutions to the childcare dilemma will emerge only when all sides come together across ideological and sectoral divides—employers, providers, policymakers, childcare workers, and, of course, families all have important roles to play. All stakeholders agree that sharpening our understanding of the challenges facing families is fundamental. To that end, Convergence partnered with Civic Genius to hear directly from workers from diverse backgrounds about their personal experiences managing kids and work during the pandemic.
Several themes quickly emerged from interviews with parents primarily from across New York State and across the income spectrum, with a focus on low- and moderate-income earners.
First, in what’s usually a patchwork system, every childcare arrangement is unique. Families cobble together childcare through daycare, school, family, babysitters, and extracurricular programs to make things work. COVID-19 upended the fragile systems many parents had in place.
When one piece of the childcare machine breaks, everything grinds to a halt. The grandmother who used to watch your toddler may now be too high-risk to interact with you, an essential worker. The babysitter who used to pick up your daughter after school can’t do so anymore because her children’s afterschool program closed. If you rely on no- or low-cost childcare, your already scarce options are decimated by these disruptions.
Our researchi llustrates how working remotely while kids learn remotely has been a challenge for everyone. Those with younger children struggle to supervise schoolwork while keeping up with their jobs. Parents felt guilty about neglecting their children to keep up with work, and also about neglecting work to keep up with childcare.
The pervasive feeling of vulnerability also takes its toll. Some parents can afford daycare now, but not if their hours get cut. For parents looking for work, a real obstacle is not knowing if their childcare situation could change in an instant.
Only two participants in the Civic Genius listening sessions took advantage of paid leave provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Important and disappointing, the only people in the group aware of this policy were higher-income professionals. Lower-income participants were unaware they could take paid leave.
By far the most common complaint was that families are stressed out after months of juggling. All reported experiencing anxiety and exhaustion, along with a feeling that a change in employment or childcare could push them over the edge. Many expressed the need for flexible hours, empathy from employers, and support to figure out the care arrangements that work best for their schedules and values.
Things are changing, of course. The rollout of vaccination across the country promises to slowly return childcare to normalcy. And a pandemic relief bill signed into law by President Biden this month includes a temporary dedicated childcare subsidy, as well as an expanded child tax credit that will provide a major cash infusion to struggling families. Some experts say this could have truly transformational impact, cutting child poverty roughly in half, though long-term solutions are still needed.
Some of the damage to household incomes, however, may be permanent. Researchers have long found that rejoining the workforce after leaving it can be difficult for parents, and that the loss in income, benefits, retirement and wage growth can be substantial.
As we look ahead, one thing is clear: there is no one-size-fits-all answer. America can’t recover economically if we don’t support all types of families, and all of the creative ways they nurture and care for their children. To find the best path forward will require leaders on all sides to come together across ideological differences to find solutions that give workers what they need most: options.
Jillian Youngblood is the Executive Director of Civic Genius in New York. Russell Krumnow is the Senior Director of Projects for the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution in Washington, DC. Both organizations are dedicated to bringing people together across ideological divides to find solutions to our most pressing challenges.