“School closures place a major institutional constraint on families to cover additional childcare. While the primary function of schools is children’s education, they also provide an expansive infrastructure of care, especially for elementary school–age children. Never before have schools closed to the extent or duration that we have observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. One in three U.S. women who left employment cite child care demands as a primary reason for their departure. We conceptualize mothers’ labor force exodus as a deeply constrained choice, given women’s limited capacity to engage simultaneously in paid work and around-the-clock care of children at home for months on end. Without more support from fathers, employers, and the government, something had to give under this unsustainable pressure. What seems to be giving is mothers’ employment, with disastrous implications for their long-term earnings and occupational attainment.
Expensive and inaccessible child care hinders mothers’ employment. Costly child care increases mothers’ odds of labor market exits and deters reentry, especially among single mothers and mothers with lower wages. As a liberal welfare state that conceives of families and caregiving as private responsibilities, the United States is one of the only high-income countries without a public child care system. Across OECD countries, other governments are in agreement about the value of early childhood education and care and make major investments to subsidize care accordingly. Absent a federal program, the long-awaited expansion of universal preschool in some U.S. municipalities shows just how central child care is for mothers’ employment. In Washington, DC, for example, the implementation of universal preschool for three- and four-year-old children has been linked to a remarkable 10–percentage point increase in maternal labor force participation. Without a robust public child care system, many women reduce employment when children are young and reenter the labor force when children reach school age.
School schedules (i.e., length of school day) also shape maternal employment, and legislated school day hours vary across states. In states where school days are shorter, fewer mothers work for pay than in states with longer school days; and mothers who do work are more likely to do so part-time. For many, schools provide a critical institutional lifeline to maintain employment. Thus, remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be particularly detrimental to mothers’ labor force supply and attachment, as they struggle to maintain paid work while supervising children’s virtual schooling.
Early studies of parents’ domestic allocations at the height of the first pandemic lockdown show that mothers picked up a larger share of housework, child care, and homeschooling than did fathers, which hurt their employment. Fathers’ employment remained largely unchanged. Our research shows that even when both parents could telecommute, mothers reduced work time and were more likely than fathers to exit the labor force. Mothers also reported greater increases in anxiety, depression, and disturbed sleep compared with fathers, especially after experiencing a job loss or an increased housework or child care load. Thus, preliminary evidence suggests that gender inequality in the domestic division of labor worsened under the pandemic. Mothers, on average, assumed the brunt of the added care at the expense of their paid work.”
Excerpt adapted from Collins, Caitlyn, Leah Ruppanner, Liana Christin Landivar, and William J. Scarborough. “The Gendered Consequences of a Weak Infrastructure of Care: School Reopening Plans and Parents’ Employment During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Gender & Society 35, no. 2 (April 2021): 180–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/08912432211001300. (From the section, “Work–Family Decisions Given a Weak Social Safety Net: Theorizing Maternal Employment Through a Capabilities Perspective.” Emphasis and images added. References in original reproduced below.)
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