It's time for COVID-19 disaster relief ... for mothers
© UC Berkeley

That next wave of COVID-19 is here and no place in the country seems safe from rapidly rising infection rates. While the effects of COVID will be felt in many social and economic sectors, the American family is about to be upended. As public schools from New York City to Denver to Los Angeles shift to remote learning, mothers are bracing for disaster.

Without necessary disaster relief, this is going to get increasingly and needlessly ugly. We must recognize that parents — and mothers in particular — are struggling to meet their dual employment and childcare responsibilities. Though many parents are juggling, women provide the majority of childcare — even in dual earner households. Women are leaving the labor force at higher rates than men simply because they can’t do it all.

This retreat hurts America. According to economist Betsey Stevenson, this imbalance will have a negative impact on women’s career trajectories and earnings for the long haul. As mothers are squeezed out of the labor force, America’s GDP will suffer. Beyond unemployment, this will create a structural imbalance throughout society. We will lose part of a generation of capable workers that have proven their ability to cultivate economic growth. Moreover, women may lose fulfilling careers and economic self-sufficiency. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Public schools are again closing their physical doors and going remote. Many children are engaged in hybrid education that has them splitting their days between school and home. Parents are seeing the early signs of strain. A recent survey found that four-in-ten working parents fear penalties at work due to increased childcare responsibilities during the workday.

Parents are an underappreciated class of essential workers keeping the American economy going during this pandemic. Failing to help parents, and specifically mothers, leads to the worst kind of trickle down. Children will suffer. Presumably due to working and childrearing simultaneously, there are reported spikes of at home pediatric injuries and an increase in the severity of pediatric ER visits. A new working paper, shows a link between people staying at home longer and relatively higher substantiated child neglect rates.

The shutdowns and quarantines earlier in 2020 had enormous economic consequences that warranted government stimulus; but how did we invest those dollars? The $2.2 trillion stimulus package invested in small business loans ($484 billion) and health care ($72 billion). Betsey Stevenson points out that Delta Airlines alone received more money ($5.4 billion) than the entire childcare industry ($3.5 billion). This time, let’s get disaster relief to the people caring for our nation’s children.

Working parents need society’s help providing care for their children during this pandemic. If we don’t, women will exit the labor force, and kids, our future workforce, will suffer under-investment. Even if we wave our magic wands to keep schools open, this overlooks another important detail: the vast majority of teachers and daycare workers are likely mothers with childcare responsibilities. America’s policy solution cannot be to shift this problem from one working (and likely higher income) mother to another working (and likely lower income, less well-resourced) mother.

Rather than transferring this problem from one mother to another, we need to realize that mothers can’t continue to be our shock absorbers. If children need to be home, then we need to provide temporary support to those keeping them safe and managing their learning environment.  There are several models we can consider. In France, if your child’s school closes, the government will replace one parent’s wages (up to 84 percent). Or we could use California’s Paid Family Leave program as a template. Alternatively, families could designate a primary caregiver to reduce their hours to part-time, but do so with job protection.

ADVERTISEMENT

While Anthony Fauci says, “help is on the way,” for many families the vaccine horizon is still too far out. Currently, when schools close, parents have to make a choice between working and caring for their children. Income support will keep caregivers attached to the labor force and create a kind of public-private partnership that promotes public health.

Income support for caregivers is disaster relief and sorely needed economic stimulus combined, and it will keep mothers attached to the labor force addressing a pandemic-related employment gender gap. The Economic Policy Institute shows the importance of promoting women in the labor force to maintain economic growth. Keeping women attached to the labor force is also necessary to our post-COVID economic recovery.

No one asked for this pandemic — not mothers, not children, not employers, not taxpayers. Nevertheless, it is a nationwide disaster, and in times of disaster, those most affected, those most at-risk have always been able to lean on their government for support. It’s time for America to show up for the class of essential workers we call parents and for their children. Let’s make it possible for American mothers to put family and community first without sacrificing their livelihoods.

Kerri M. Raissian is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, and a co-leader of the Connecticut Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. Jennifer Necci Dineen is Associate Professor in Residence at the University of Connecticut and Director of the Graduate Program in Survey Research.