COVID-19 and School Closures
This 10-minute podcast was released May 26, 2020.
“Even though we know that many people are able to work from home, once you add the kind of the burden of childcare on top of it, it means they're probably not working as many hours and if they are working, they're maybe not as productive,” says Charles Gascon, St. Louis Fed regional economist. He talks with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, about how COVID-19 schools closings are impacting worker productivity, children’s education and even existing gender gaps.
Maria Hasenstab: Welcome to Timely Topics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed. I'm your host, Maria Hasenstab, and today I'm speaking with Charles Gascon, regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Chuck, thanks for joining me today.
Charles Gascon: Well, thanks for having me on.
Hasenstab: In your latest On the Economy blog post which is titled, "COVID-19 School Closings and Labor Market Impacts," you look at the severe coronavirus-related school closures and how it has affected many fulltime workers. Why did you decide to write about this subject?
Gascon: I think to start out, being somebody who's working fulltime and my wife also being a fulltime worker, we've struggled to make the adjustment for taking care of our kids and working. And I was kind of just curious to know how many other people in the country are going through similar circumstances and just putting a number behind kind of what we were already feeling and knowing that it was impacting a lot of other families. In my life, it seems like a hundred percent of families are going through it, and then I talk to other people like my parents who are, you know, bored at times because they have no kids in the house and trying to figure out how to spend their time. So it seemed like we were living in two very different worlds, I guess you could say.
Hasenstab: Yeah, that's a really interesting way to look at it. One area hit especially hard that you've written about is single parents with young children. Talk to me about what you found.
Gascon: Yeah. So what we did was we used data from the Department of Labor, their current population survey. And we took a long period of time to look at because the samples get small and we wanted to make sure everything was relatively stable and it wasn't due to something specific in a given year. So we looked at data from 2015 to 2019. And we were specifically looking at fulltime workers that have children under the age of 9 in their house. And what we found was that of those people, about 8% of those without a spouse at home were working fulltime and they also had young children. And more interesting than not, those with lower incomes were more likely to be the ones with children at home. And that actually reverses as you start to get to couples that are married where one person is working fulltime or the other person's not working at all. So it seems to be the case that those with the lowest income working fulltime and no spouse at home were very likely to struggle in this environment and try to find childcare.
Hasenstab: And while potentially less severe, what did you find on working spouses caring for their children during this time of school closures?
Gascon: Yeah. So overall, if you look at couples where you have two adults in the house with children, about 30% of those households have a young child at home. And generally speaking, it's fairly stable and relative to income. It's also stable and relative to if both people are working or only one person's working. It's generally the case that it's about 30% of people have young children at home. And it is slightly more likely that you're going to have young children at home if the spouse is not working fulltime and you're at a higher income. That's the group that's most likely to have children at home. And they're also most likely to be able to handle the impact of school closures because they have one person at home that may not be working.
Hasenstab: So they're able to divide and conquer a little bit better.
Gascon: I don't know if "conquer" is the right word, but [laughter] survive maybe [laughs].
Hasenstab: Absolutely. And in the conclusion to your blog post, you highlight some of the longer-term effects of school closings on the economy. Can you walk me through some of those implications?
Gascon: Yeah, absolutely. So when we think about school closures, usually, it's just a couple of days here or there and we know that people have to take time off from work, either use vacation time or take unpaid time, to take care of their children. But it's a temporary thing that doesn't involve permanent changes to the work arrangements. So even though you're going to have people that have to stay home, in some cases where they're working remotely, they may not be as productive because they're taking care of their children, but it's only for a short period of time. Now, we're talking about months at a time here to where you could see long-term changes in worker productivity that lead to loss of output and potentially lower wages that you may not see in just kind of a short-term shock. So even though we know that many people are able to work from home, once you add the kind of the burden of childcare on top of it, it means they're probably not working as many hours and if they are working, they're maybe not as productive.
The other thing that we've started to see in other cases is gender gaps and gender roles start to reemerge in that we know in the data that men tend to have higher incomes than women on average. And when you start to put households under pressure, there's a need to earn income and households are going to make a rational choice that says well, the person that's making the most income is probably the one that's going to continue to work and try to keep their job to provide income for the family, and if, on average, the other person's making less income, they're more likely to be the one that sacrifices on home work. Compound that with just the typical gender stereotypes that we see in society, this could basically exacerbate these gaps that have slowly narrowed over time in many cases. And then this isn't something I talked about in the blog post, but it's starting to become more evident: Many of the occupations that we see where there are more women working in the occupations, particularly in the healthcare sector, are the sectors where we're starting to see more layoffs take place, as well. So those people are more likely to be home to provide services for the household. So I think that has a long-run impact that could play out over the next couple of years. And it's yet to be seen how that's going to shake out.
I think, you know, lastly, looking at the impact that it has on children's education, we know that there are already big disparities in education across households based on income and what resources they have available to them. And having children outside of the classroom means that they may not have access to food and a reliable, stable place to go in some cases. And that can make kind of these inequities that we typically were already seeing in society just get exacerbated. And if we start to look at where the health impacts of COVID have been the strongest, it's also been in some of these poorer communities and in some of these areas where people have essential jobs. So it just kind of compounds that effect of schools being closed, households have less resources, parents are more likely to have jobs where they have to be onsite, and they have to go to work because they're in these essential jobs. So it can really compound these effects into longer term challenges.
Hasenstab: What are you hoping that listeners of this podcast and readers of your blog post take away from your research?
Gascon: That's a great question. I think, to start out, understanding that while we're looking at schools here, this is true for any different business or organization, which is, there's an immediate impact that we have to worry about, which in this case is if kids are in schools, they're more likely to get sick and that can lead to spread of disease. And that's something that we need to address and take care of to keep people safe and healthy.
But there's all of these secondary compounding effects that start to play out because we have all these linkages in society that take one very clearly defined problem, and the solution can have all these very different effects and very complicated impacts that spin well, well beyond just school being closed for a day as you start to think about how it plays out over the months ahead. You see the same thing happening in the healthcare sector. We know that there's a demand for healthcare services. I don't think anybody would have thought when this happened that that would have meant that hospitals are laying off workers because they don't have any revenue and what that means for the stabilization of the economy. So these things just play out in many different parts. And so we can't really be thinking about making decisions in isolation; we have to think about how this plays out in overall society.
Hasenstab: Chuck, thank you so much for your time today. You have raised a lot of really important points and given us a lot to think about.
Gascon: Thank you very much. It was nice talking to you.
Hasenstab: To read the full blog post visit stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy. And for more Timely Topics podcasts episodes, visit stlouisfed.org/timely-topics. You can also subscribe to our Timely Topics podcast series on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify. Thank you.