July 2, 2020
A report out of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality,” explores how coronavirus impacts gender equality in the short and long term, and it’s no surprise that childcare accessibility and affordability play a key role in the labor changes we’re seeing during this global pandemic.
The paper explains that a typical recession affects men more severely than women; however, the economic fallout of this pandemic has disproportionately impacted job sectors dominated by women, like retail and hospitality, due to social distancing requirements and recent workplace and childcare closures. In addition, since coronavirus is particularly lethal for the elderly, many families are unable to rely on family-care, sometimes provided by grandparents, or informal care networks. And the cost of private in-home daycare is prohibitively expensive. That accompanied with closing schools and childcare centers exacerbates the issue of women disproportionately leaving the workforce to take on care responsibilities.
Since spring, women have dropped out of the workforce at faster rates than men or faced reduced hours and furloughs. Prior to the pandemic, women disproportionately spent more time on household labor even when they were primary earners in their family. Now they face additional workloads, caring for and assisting with children’s education from home often while balancing remote work or juggling essential work on the frontlines. As a result of care responsibilities, women are more likely to be laid off or leave work.
However, despite these immediate effects of coronavirus on women’s workforce participation and family care needs, the CEPR paper highlights some bright spots for how the pandemic could potentially reshape gender equality in the long term. More employers are incorporating flexible work arrangements, and many male caregivers are finding themselves as the primary caregiver in their households. While women will likely bear the brunt of the increases in childcare responsibilities, men working from home are likely to increase their hours providing childcare as well. In families where women are essential workers, men who stay at home—due to job loss or remote working arrangements—are likely to step into the role of primary caregivers, which could affect cultural norms in the long run.
The health of our care system is a critical cornerstone to progress in gender equality and the United States’ economic recovery. As the cornerstone of a healthy economy, failing to adequately fund childcare would take a toll on every job sector. Thanks to the call to action made by economists and care experts, members of Congress have expressed a growing sense of urgency around increasing public investment in childcare.
We have the unique opportunity to rebuild childcare systems in a way that makes sense for parents and guardians, as well as professional caregivers. Right now caregivers make poverty wages while many families can barely afford childcare. The care options families feel comfortable with are changing due to coronavirus, with more parents and guardians seeking in-home care. Concerned about the cost of childcare due to economic hardship, more families are calling on business leaders and the government to invest in bolstering the system.
In the midst of a care crisis and a global pandemic, legislators have the opportunity and the responsibility to create policy interventions and funding structures that offer careworkers safe and dignified work, while allowing families better economic security and a chance to practice gender equality at home. While women and their young children will endure the initial consequences of an underfunded childcare system, eventually every person will see or feel the invisible impact of an unsustainable care economy.