Child care is holding workers back in this recovery

Child care is holding workers back in this recovery
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The May jobs report showed overall growth. Women gained about 381,000 jobs, while men lost around 4,000. These numbers provide fodder for the take that child care is not holding back workers from returning to work. Dominant voices arguing that women with small children make up only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce and, with many of them already back to work, focusing on their needs won’t do much to move the dial.  

But child care is essential for reaching the Federal Reserve’s full employment mandate. Regardless, wonks have moved on from child care to other hot ticket solutions to getting workers back to work such as reducing pandemic unemployment support. Like scrooges from “A Christmas Carol,” about half of state governors have fallen in line stripping away a last lifeline by closing the federal assistance tap early. Driven by a rationale from some sectors struggling to find employees that there is a need to force individuals out of their homes and into low paying jobs. In doing so, these state governments are giving up millions of dollars in federal aid funneling into consumer spending within their states.  

More optimistic voices have argued for a balanced approach to getting workers back to work in an economy where they have increased bargaining power. Actions like more stable work schedules, increased wages and child care can go a long way towards incentivizing workers to come back. 

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As a principal economist in the federal government and with two decades of independently led research under my belt, I am not surprised this male-dominated field has largely written women off, again. Child care is believed to be a private issue. As such, women disproportionately take up the slack for unpaid care, silently managing the care economy — with little to no pay. This has, on average, given men more advantage in the paid labor market. It has allowed men with children and elder parents to prosper at work while their female counterparts have floundered. Census Bureau researchers have shown that having children reduces labor force participation and earnings for women.  

This belief has allowed dominating perspectives to write off child care as not helpful in moving this recovery forward. This short-sided view is the same perspective that, in younger generations, has driven women to want less-and-less to start a family as increased education levels, desires to contribute to the more formal sectors of society, and barriers to simultaneously having a career and family have overwhelmed their desire to have children and invest in the next generation. 

Before the pandemic, women made up about 77.9 million workers, almost half of the labor force. About one-in-three of these working women lived with at least one dependent child. Almost one out of every six workers but, as my fifth-grader’s family life course will tell you, it takes two to make a baby. Hard to argue only 12 percent of the labor market is affected by child care when in reality it is more like anywhere from 24-33 percent if dads and mothers of young teens are included in that assessment.

What about parents who don’t reach the labor market because the cost of child care is deemed too high or is unavailable? Of all women living with dependent children before the pandemic, one-in-four (9.4 million) stayed out of the labor market either by preference, disability, or because child care costs were deemed too expensive to make a venture into the world of paid labor worthwhile. Even before the pandemic, there was real untapped labor potential in these mothers (and some fathers). 

Women with children were not at full employment levels before the pandemic, but they could reach it post-pandemic with the right infrastructure and support. Providing parents with safe, affordable child care can increase employment, and experts have come up with reasonable plans to make it happen. Offering accessible and affordable child care today could bring anywhere from upwards of 5.3 to 12.4 million (the figures are based on my own calculations) additional workers into paid labor within the labor market and have the added benefit of enhancing child development at a critical stage. Yes, some of them were not working in paid labor before the pandemic allowing for the hot take that child care is not a solution to fester and grow. But does it matter if they were not working before? 

Child care is a substantive need to address the Federal Reserve’s full employment mandate and can influence the current economic recovery. To argue that child care will not help this recovery is a narrowly focused short-sighted view. Dispelling this myth now helps move us in the right direction to a full recovery. If employers are looking for workers, let’s make it easier for adults living with children to get out and work by providing a more just, equitable and comprehensive childcare system. These adults could just be our golden ticket to a better, quicker, fairer post-pandemic economy.

Misty L. Heggeness is a senior advisor and principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau. She conducts research on gender, households and economics, and over the past year she has written extensively about women, work and the pandemic. All errors and any opinions are solely hers and do not reflect any official position of the U.S. Census Bureau.