Women’s participation in the workforce — which is closely tied to access to child care — has dropped at a faster clip than men’s since the early spring.
A lack of safe and affordable child care amid the coronavirus pandemic is keeping many working parents from returning to the office as more companies call employees back to their jobs — threatening to extend the economic crisis and erode decades of gains for women in the workplace.
The U.S. is experiencing its highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression, even as businesses begin to reopen. More than 20 million American workers are receiving jobless benefits. Another 1.48 million applied for jobless aid last week, the Department of Labor said Thursday.
The burden is disproportionately falling on women, who are more likely to have been laid off, to have left the labor market or to be considering quitting their jobs so they can manage family responsibilities, Labor Department data, academic research and surveys show.
And the problem is on track to only get worse: Continued shutdowns and the need to implement costly safety and social distancing measures are threatening to run so many child care providers out of business that the country could permanently lose an estimated half of its capacity. Between February and April of this year, more than 1 in 3 jobs in child day care services had been erasedbefore the industry began to recover slightly in May, according to Labor Department data.
Left unaddressed, the issue will affect tens of millions of Americans. More than 325,000 child care workers have already lost their jobs since February. And more than 33 million American families have children under the age of 18. In nearly two-thirds of married-couple families with kids, both parents were working as of last year.
President Donald Trump compounded the crisis when he issued an executive order on Monday restricting certain types of foreign worker visas, including J visas used by au pairs, teachers and camp counselors.
Now, economists and industry experts are calling on Congress to funnel billions of dollars into child care, arguing that doing so would have the double-barreled benefit of providing jobs for workers in the industry while allowing working parents to return to the office. That in turn, they say, would leave everyone with more income to spend in their communities — thus accelerating the recovery.
“If you don’t fund this one, many other industries are going to pay a hidden price,” said Art Rolnick, the former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and an expert on child development and social policy.
“You won’t find a better stimulant than this industry,” he added. “That money will get spent, and it will get multiplied in the neighborhood.”
In March, as the pandemic was just getting under way, the unemployment rate for both adult men and women was 4 percent. Two months later, that rate jumped up by 7.6 percentage points for men, but nearly 10 percentage points for women.
Women’s participation in the workforce — which is closely tied to access to child care — has also dropped at a faster clip than men’s since the early spring. While 61 percent of men over the age of 20 were employed in May, less than half of women were, the data show.
“We still live in a world where women shoulder more of the responsibilities for care work,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist at the Labor Department. “Not getting this stuff in place will mean women will be the ones who are more likely to have to stay home.”
Within the child care industry, too, a staggering 93 percent of jobs are held by women, according to Labor Department data, and 45.3 percent are Black, Asian or Latino. Making sure the sector stays afloat — or even strengthens — could have an outsized impact on the economic well-being of those demographics.
“It’ll be crucial that that investment is made so that these are actually decent jobs for the people who are holding them,” said Shierholz, now policy director at the Economic Policy Institute.
More than 100 economists wrote an open letter to Congress this week highlighting the need for at least $50 billion in aid for the child care industry, calling it “an essential precondition for a successful economic recovery.” Congressional Democrats have been pushing the same idea since late May, when Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the Child Care Is Essential Act.
“This is a crisis,” DeLauro said. “This is not unlike a manufacturing crisis, an airline crisis, all of the other things that are out there.”
“If you cannot make families feel that their kids are going to be safe and secure, in a safe environment, in a learning environment, we’re not going to get our economy back on track,” she said.
DeLauro’s bill would appropriate $50 billion for grants that help child care providers affected by the coronavirus pandemic cover their expenses. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is the lead sponsor of the Senate version.
It’s a level of investment that would be significantly higher than what Congress has previously considered: The CARES Act appropriated $3.5 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants, as well as $750 million for the Head Start program. The HEROES Act, the House-passed Democratic proposal for the next round of aid, would appropriate $7 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants.
“We know that’s not enough,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said. “We need to stabilize the child care system or we won’t have a robust economic recovery.”
“It is a piece — of course, we need to continue with testing and physical distancing and all those other things — but for people going back to work, these are really long-term ramifications if we don’t address this.”
The issue has gained more prominence in recent weeks as every state begins to reopen its doors and Congress continues to debate how best to get employees back to work quickly and safely. Forty-one state and local chambers of commerce called on lawmakers earlier this month to include targeted assistance to child care centers as part of its next coronavirus response package.
Five Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have written to the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration to ask for clear guidance ensuring that child care providers have access to loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, the government-backed emergency program for small businesses. They cited one analysis showing that family child care homes were seeing an approval rate of roughly 25 percent.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also pledged that the issue “will get very big attention” and that when it comes to the economic recovery and women’s participation in the workforce, child care is “key to it all.”
But the effort will need bipartisan support to be successful, and it remains unclear whether Republicans are willing to sign on.
Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia offered a resolution last month proposing that the next coronavirus relief package include $25 billion for child care providers. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said this week that he would support sending tens of billions of dollars to aid schools and colleges, acknowledging that doing so would help parents and the economy. But he did not comment on child care specifically, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans have said they want to continue monitoring economic conditions and CARES Act spending before they make decisions on what further stimulus aid might be needed.
In the House, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said on a recent press call with reporters that child care is “an important part of returning to work” and that he would be willing to discuss with Democrats how to maximize the number of child care facilities that can remain open.
At a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing Tuesday focused on the issue, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) went a step further, saying that the forced shutdown of a large portion of child care providers across the country would mean “parents in all industries will be unable to go back to work, significantly slowing our own economic recovery.”
“Child care is exactly the type of smart investment we should be prioritizing as we safely reopen and rebuild America’s economy,” Walorski said.
About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.