Despite the U.S. economic recovery this past year, working parents continue to face the challenges of a disrupted labor market and the struggles of disrupted child care. The spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate longstanding disruptions.
Nonfarm payroll employment remains well below pre-pandemic levels and the unemployment rate remains elevated. The figure below shows that as of mid-May, a significant share of adults of prime-working age (25 to 54 years old) reported lost employment income over the past four weeks. Those losses were significantly worse for parents, with over 1 in 5 parents of school-age children and 1 in 4 parents of very young (pre-kindergarten) children reporting lost income. These losses represent a continuation of labor market difficulties that parents have experienced throughout the pandemic.
Given ongoing disruptions to child care arrangements, many working parents, especially of very young children, must provide more hands-on care during the workday, rendering them unable to work the same number of hours (if at all) than they otherwise would. This represents an important labor supply bottleneck that is contributing to a shortage of workers that has attracted considerable public attention.
According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 25% of parents with very young children reported that their children were unable to attend child care arrangements in mid- to late-May* because of the pandemic, versus 16% for those with school-age children.The Household Pulse Survey started asking specifically about child care arrangement disruptions in the April 14-26, 2021, survey wave. Importantly, these constraints predominantly keep women out of the workforce: Roughly 39% of prime-working-age women with children (versus 12% of men) reported not working because they were caring for children not in school or day care. This lopsided care arrangement has the capacity to depress women’s upward earnings mobility (and wealth accumulation) as they are forced to step away from their jobs. While some have suggested mothers may have voluntarily stepped out of the labor force, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) data show that only 8% of mothers left their jobs voluntarily, the same rate as women without children.
Like many other outcomes during the pandemic, nonwhite parents have borne more of the hardship. Among adults of prime working age, about 36% of Black parents and over 30% of Hispanic parents reported lost employment income in mid-May. In contrast, 20% of Asian parents and around 16% of white parents reported losing income. Nonwhite parents generally faced more frequent disruptions to child care arrangements, which may partly explain why they lost income at a greater rate.
For example, the 2020 SHED survey (fielded in November 2020 during the fall virus surge) found that while 57% of non-Hispanic white parents faced disrupted access to child care, Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to experience interruptions (62% and 63%, respectively). Of parents who experienced disruptions, Black and Hispanic parents were much more likely to report working less or not working than white parents (43%, 39% and 25%, respectively).
Overall, parents of very young children (from newborns to 5-year-olds) had considerably more difficulty with access to care (63%) relative to their peers with school-age children (55%); when this rate was broken down by race and ethnicity, Black parents in particular faced more barriers (68%).
As evidenced in the more recent data from the Household Pulse Survey shown in the figure below, child care disruption continued late into the spring semester of 2021, along with disparities by race and ethnicity.
As the pandemic shuttered day cares and schools, we witnessed how vulnerable the labor market attachment of working parents is, especially for mothers. The economy has benefited greatly from a long-run trend of women entering the workforce and continuing to work after having children. These unintentional leaves of absence from the labor market due to the pandemic have the capacity to scar the future earnings prospects (and wealth accumulation) of these parents.
As the nation recovers from this historic crisis, it is worth considering how we might improve the supports provided to parents and their children, whether they choose to be in the labor market or stay at home providing care. One policy we might consider is providing national paid family leave for men and women. Among many other benefits, providing reliable paid family leave could stabilize family incomes during times of crisis.
Additionally, Congress recently expanded the child tax credit as part of the American Rescue Plan, although this increase will end after 2021. Making these changes permanent could provide lasting support for parents to provide for their children in good and bad times. Participation in the economy would likely increase if financially stable parents had the freedom to work and nurture their children.
*This post was updated to correct the month of the cited Household Pulse Survey.