While the number of vaccines administered increases by the day and the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are falling nationally, the pandemic is not over, and it continues to have significant economic, social, and public health consequences. While no aspect of modern life has been wholly untouched, some sectors of the economy have been more hard hit. One sector that has seen significant challenges as a result of the pandemic is child care. And the ripple effects extend far beyond just those directly experienced by the workers who make a living caring for the nation’s children when their parents are otherwise occupied. Simply put, in an era when most parents work and the majority of families do not have a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver, the U.S. economy cannot fully function without parents’ access to child care.
Child care was often inaccessible even prepandemic
Access to affordable, high-quality child care was a problem for families long before the upheavals of 2020. When parents are unable to access child care because there are not enough providers in their area or they cannot afford the care available, they are faced with impossible choices. Parents in these situations must figure out a way to make things work. Sometimes they must rely on friends and family members to provide informal care; sometimes they pay more than they can afford for child care; and sometimes they scale back their work hours or leaving the labor force in order to provide care themselves.
Prior CAP analysis using data from 2018 found that more than half of American families with young children lived in a child care desert—a census tract with more than three children under age 5 for every licensed child care slot. This is a problem that has only increased in scope as a result of the pandemic.
Families today are feeling the effects of widespread child care disruptions caused by the pandemic. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey collected in April 2021 and May 2021 finds that roughly 6.5 million families with children report experiencing child care disruptions in the four weeks preceding the survey. The most common response describing how this disruption was addressed was for an adult in the household to supervise children while working. However, that is obviously not a viable option for many workers who have returned to (or never left) their job sites. Over the last three waves of the survey, on average, roughly one-quarter of families experiencing a disruption reported that an adult in the household took paid (23.4 percent) or unpaid (23.6 percent) leave or cut work hours (26.0 percent) in order to care for children. These are clearly suboptimal solutions that are not sustainable in the long-term for the majority of families. Taking unpaid leave and reducing work hours results in drops to families’ incomes, while using what are usually limited amounts of paid leave for child care disruptions may mean that there is no paid time off left in the future if another health or caregiving emergency occurs.
Families’ responses to child care disruptions vary across demographics
The most recent data—collected from May 12, 2021, to May 24, 2021, asked respondents about their actions in the previous four weeks. The experience of child care disruptions is felt relatively evenly across all groups of families with children, as even the most privileged families have not been able to completely buy themselves out of the effects of the pandemic. But there are striking differences in how families respond to these child care disruptions. Access this data here.
For example, Black and Latino families are the most likely to report that an adult in the household had to take unpaid leave (29.4 percent and 32.9 percent), while white non-Hispanic and Asian families most likely to report supervising children while working (33.3 percent and 34.7 percent.) And, when white and Asian families did take leave to care for their children, they were more likely to be paid.
Those with less than a high school education were more likely to report that a member of the family left a job to care for children or lost a job because of time away to care for children (24.5 percent and 14.5 percent) compared to those with higher levels of formal education. Adults with a bachelor’s degree were far less likely to quit (8.5 percent) or lose a job (3.9 percent) and were far more likely to report supervising children while working (42.3 percent). Notably this is also the group that is significantly more likely to have the ability to work from home.
Interestingly, higher-income families were the most likely to report that an adult in the household cut work hours in order to care for children. This is likely because these are the families that could most afford to weather a dip in earnings, while lower income families may have had no choice but to find other solutions in order to get by. Unsurprisingly, high-income families were also the most likely to report taking paid leave in response to child care disruptions, which follows other data showing that high-wage workers are much more likely to have access to various forms of paid leave. High-income families were also the most likely to report watching children while they worked, which is, again, likely influenced by the fact that highly paid workers are likely to have the greatest flexibility and ability to work remotely compared to lower wage workers.
All in all, according to the most recent data, 1.1 million respondents stated that, in the last four weeks, an adult in their household did not look for a job in order to care for children as a result of child care disruptions. Roughly 1 million reported an adult in their household left a job in order to care for children, and nearly half a million reported an adult in their household lost a job because of time away to care for children. Even among those who were able to keep working; 1.7 million reported cutting work hours; 1.5 million took paid leave; and 1.7 million took unpaid leave in order to care for children. The disparities across different racial and ethnic groups and between high- and low-income families mean that families of color and those with already low incomes are the most likely to experience a significant economic hit when responding to child care disruptions related to the pandemic. This is added on top of the fact that these are the very families that were already disproportionately likely to experience challenges accessing child care even before the events of 2020. These ongoing disruptions help perpetuate the economic insecurity that makes it even harder for families to build up savings and prepare for future emergencies.
The ways that families are forced cobble together individual responses to child care disruptions are not sustainable—not for individual families and not for the health of the U.S. economy. Long-standing norms have led us to accept that child care disruptions, whether caused by the pandemic or mundane day-to-day occurrences, are something that working parents—mostly mothers—have to address on their own. As a nation, we must prioritize addressing the needs of families and stop reinforcing the notion that women—and, particularly, women of color—are undeserving of support. The American Rescue Plan Act recognizes the immediate need in the country and is providing critical relief to child care providers and families. However, the child care field requires additional strategic investment to build the capacity to meet the needs of all families.
Government officials must work to identify the types of public policies that will be responsive to the realities facing families in 2021. These solutions will enable families to fulfill their child care responsibilities without putting their jobs or their families’ economic security at risk. This must include investments to make child care more affordable and accessible, without sacrificing quality, as well as the development of long-overdue paid leave policies to support workers taking time away from work when emergencies arise, without being penalized. Both approaches are necessary: Families need better access to child care, and they need better access to paid leave. As the pandemic has highlighted, neither can be a replacement for the other. These policies are not just nice things to offer working families. Rather, they are sound economic investments that are essential to economic growth because they help working caregivers—women in particular—stay in the workforce at their full potential productivity.
Sarah Jane Glynn is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.