Child Care Investment Could Close the Growing Gender Gap in Work Hours

The U.S. is in the midst of a child care crisis that some experts say will affect women’s employment for years to come.
Blog Post
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Sept. 30, 2020

Leah Ruppanner is a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Melbourne. Her recent book Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of the Economy showed that when states build high-quality early education and child care infrastructure, those policies in turn boost mothers’ employment. States without these kinds of policies had worse outcomes for mothers.

Ruppanner is also a coauthor of one of the first studies to show mothers were reducing their work hours during the pandemic, increasing the gap between men’s and women’s work hours. That could have serious repercussions for women’s earning and for families’ economic security, since women are now the breadwinners in approximately 40 percent of U.S. homes.

The Better Life Lab’s Haley Swenson asked Ruppanner to share what we know so far about the effects of the pandemic on women and work. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

What do we know about how the pandemic, and the response to the pandemic thus far, affects women's ability to work and earn a living in the U.S.?

We know that this pandemic and the economic recession that followed is unique to others in its impact on women. While the Great Recession knocked out construction jobs that employ more men, this pandemic is impacting travel, hospitality and service economies which employ more women. Importantly, across all jobs women are being knocked out at higher rates than men.

That is the economic side.

When we account for the domestic side, we see why women are doubly burdened by the pandemic. Mothers need reliable and safe childcare to work. Schools and daycares keep opening and closing and parents are worried about the safety of children in care.

This is disproportionately impacting mothers’ work. We looked at this using the census data and found that mothers are more likely to be unemployed than fathers. When they work, mothers report fewer hours than fathers and this is even amongst those where both are able to work from home.

Fathers’ time has been pretty much unchanged.

So, what does this mean? The pandemic has already worsened the gender gap in work hours by 20-50 percent. And, this thing is not over yet.

And is that linked to the lack of child care infrastructure in this country, prior to the pandemic? What evidence do we have that child care would help women and their families recover from this crisis?

Prior to the pandemic, whether parents have access to high quality affordable childcare depended on many things including which state they live in. I have a book that just came out that shows some states were more effective in supporting mothers employment than others. You all also have a great database that shows how states vary in their childcare resources.

The thing is that childcare is so essential to the economy—to giving parents access to the resources they need to work—and to children’s educational and emotional development. This isn’t to say parents aren’t crucial too, but young children need a range of stimulations to support brain development and, honestly, mothers need some time during the day to take a break, right?

We were really interested in seeing how childcare mattered during our last economic crisis. So, our team ran a study to look exactly at this question. We used data from the census and showed that states that had better Head Start coverage—having more children enrolled in these programs—had quicker economic recoveries.

In part, this is because if parents can’t access childcare they can’t work. This pandemic has shown that quite clearly.

Interestingly, the federal government expanded funding to Head Start through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act during the last recession. This should be done again, but also expanded to more families.

In my book, I found the states with the highest enrollment of children into Head Start also had other families at higher incomes putting their kids into these programs because they are good and affordable. We should use this existing infrastructure to support more families as they are trying to figure out how to recover from the pandemic.

What do you say to people who see child care strictly as a private issue to be handled by individual parents and families, rather than a policy issue for the public to grapple with?

I think it is hard to look at what is happening right now to the economy and not see childcare as integral to economic functioning.

As Americans, we deeply value choice and independence. And, we think of parents staying home as a choice. The challenge is, for many, the cost of childcare gobbles up so much of their salaries, that parents weigh spending all their salary on childcare, being away from home, and missing out on children’s milestones, against dropping out of work.

But this isn’t a real choice. It’s a response to an impossible challenge.

If childcare were heavily subsidized or even free, then parents could make true choices—to stay home or to work or to do a bit of both.

Children benefit so much emotionally and developmentally from high quality childcare. It is as important as sending your kid to a good university but less expensive. So, young children really need time with their parents and time in high quality childcare.

What other barriers do you see to achieving a United States in which every parent can access quality child care when they need it? How do we overcome these?

This is a really interesting question because I think we often frame access to quality childcare as too expensive or something that only liberal coastal elites want.

What was so powerful and unexpected from my book was that the states where parents are accessing high-quality childcare were often the red states in the middle of the country.

I was trying to figure out what was going on with these states and picked up the phone to ask people what was distinct about, say a state like Nebraska. And, the response was interesting—childcare was not a partisan issue in this state but rather a way to ensure children living in rural areas had just as much access as those in the cities.

Childcare is a crucial and cost-effective way to close that gap.

Is there anything else people need to know about how the child care crisis is affecting women?

I just want to share a message to the women of the world who are managing the childcare crisis: Our data are showing that you are suffering more than most—lost jobs, lost work hours, lost sleep, and loss of calm. This is all on top of larger housework, childcare and homeschooling shares. This is an incredibly difficult time and we must channel this frustration into action because it is simply unfair.

Related Topics
Family-Supportive Social Policy Gender Equity