The US unemployment rate dropped again last month to 5.2% despite only adding a disappointing 235,000 jobs last month. But these high-level figures mask a critical challenge for parents in recent months: finding adequate care for their children while they are on the job – even if that job has been remote-friendly. To make it all work, some parents are taking leave or quitting the workforce altogether.
Overall unemployment rate
Schools are now reopening for in-person classes across the US, making it more feasible for some parents to return to work. But the Covid-19 Delta variant adds a sizable amount of uncertainty to even the best-laid plans, as some daycare centers and schools have been forced to close or switch to virtual class after viral outbreaks.
While there are notable seasonal trends to consider while looking at how childcare arrangements are affecting the workforce, data from the Census Bureau’s experimental household pulse survey has shown that staying at home to take care of children has been one of the top reasons why Americans have not worked in recent weeks.
The labor participation rate (the percentage of people in jobs or looking for work) of parents – and mothers in particular – has been emphasized across many recent reports. But for Misty Heggeness, an economist at the Census Bureau, that metric is not enough.
“You have employees within our economy who are burning through leave, either paid or unpaid, and they’re going to come back to work just as equally stressed,” she said.
An unprecedented number of people are quitting their jobs in the wake of the pandemic. In her recent study looking at the experience of parents with school-age children, Heggeness found that highly educated women with telework-compatible jobs were more likely than both childless women and custodial fathers to exit the workforce.
Interestingly, unlike their low-education counterparts, these women were more likely to have stayed in their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, and to leave months later.
Heggeness is careful to note that the exits are not necessarily permanent, as careers – for both professional and financial reasons – are an important part of women’s lives.
“Women with dependent children tend to engage in the labor market in a bouncy type of fashion. Every time our kids transition from one space to another, there’s a good proportion of us who step back from work to help our kids transition.”
The decision to leave is predicated on a number of factors, including how much a family’s income relies on the mother’s salary. For women with lower levels of education, this piece is more likely to play an outsized role.
Women’s labor force participation is now the lowest it has been since the late 1980s, but the statistic hides the fact that this rate has been stalled between 55% and 60% for decades.
Experts who are working to make sense of this data have indicated that while the pandemic has made these difficulties more obvious or newsworthy, the lack of accessible childcare in the US has been a chronic problem that has only been further exacerbated in recent months.
A crucial part of the problem is that childcare providers are paid poverty-level wages. According to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for these workers is just $12.88 nationwide.
Despite the amount of skill and attention required to effectively work with younger children, the work of individual providers has been historically undervalued. According to the National Women’s Law Center’s analysis of the Census Bureau’s current population survey, more than 90% of childcare workers are women, and disproportionately, women of color.
Whitney Pesek, the director of federal childcare policy at the NWLC, said, “Even before the pandemic, the childcare system was not working for families, or for the providers.”
The low wages are a part of the reason that childcare centers are having trouble recruiting workers, especially when those workers have options at places like Home Depot and McDonald’s, where wages have improved in recent months. Childcare workers, after all, also want to provide for their own families.
Number of employees in child day care services
For similar reasons, the turnover rate in the industry is high, which is developmentally problematic for young children, who must become accustomed to new caregivers.
Much of childcare work is undertaken by small businesses or sole proprietors, who struggle to meet the high costs of running their business. Providing childcare for infants and toddlers is especially pricey, due to the necessary teacher-to-child ratios in those care settings.
Given the difficulties for both providers and parents, Pesek believes it will require public investment in affordable childcare to solve these deeply entrenched problems.
A recent study from NWLC and Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy showed that an accessible system of care – including the consideration of cultural competencies and non-traditional work hours – would help narrow the gender gap in full-time, full-year work.
The consideration is important not only for parents but also for childcare providers. Gaps in employment due to lack of access to childcare mean that women disproportionately suffer from lower lifetime earnings, stalled career advancement and smaller savings for retirement.
While there are many facets to closing the gender pay gap, affordable access to childcare is key, according to Pesek.
“It’s the work that makes other work possible.”