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Child Care Issues Not to Blame for Sluggish Job Recovery, UMD Research Shows

Parents of Young Children Overall Faced Lower Employment Loss in Early 2021 Than Population at Large

By Liam Farrell

Child sits on mother's lap as she works

Photo by iStock

While parents have struggled to balance work and child care during the pandemic, new UMD research found that their employment hasn't disproportionately declined compared to the rest of the U.S. population.

When schools and child care centers shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of American parents worried they’d have to drop out of the workforce and later struggle to regain footing in their careers once the virus was under control.

But surprising new UMD research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that parents of young children were not bearing a disproportionate brunt of employment loss once the pandemic started to ebb.

In fact, despite an economy rebounding slower than many economists had hoped, employment rates for parents with a child under 13 had declined just 5% by February 2021, compared to 6.1% for the rest of the population. While mothers had worse numbers overall, they were also comparable to childless women of similar age and education profiles.

“Twelve months ago, I would have predicted the opposite,” said Melissa Kearney, the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics in UMD’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and a co-author of the study. “Despite the fact that working parents have really been hit hard and suffered through the pandemic while trying to keep up their work, it turned out that that is not a meaningful driver of the slow aggregate recovery.”

Virtual schooling and child care closures across the country undeniably shook families, especially mothers, during the teeth of the pandemic: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found women accounted for about 80% of the 1.1 million who left jobs when school resumed last September.

Kearney, along with co-authors Jason Furman and Wilson Powell, both of Harvard University, used additional data from the bureau to compare labor workforce participation among different populations from just before it struck the nation—January and February 2020—to a full year later, January and February 2021.

They found that parents did have divergent experiences based on gender; for example, fathers of young children had less employment decline than other men, at just 3.7% versus 6.1%, whereas employment for mothers declined overall by 6.3%. Their numbers were not drastically different when compared with their childless women peers, however, and differences could also be accounted for with education disparities—mothers of young children with a bachelor’s degree declined only 3.9% vs. 4.4%, while those without a college education fell 8.6% vs. 7.9%.

Overall, the fact that mothers of young children account for just 12% of the overall American workforce means that their experiences can’t now be the “major explainer of what is going on,” Kearney said.

“It’s not to say it isn’t an important issue,” she said. “It’s just not responsible for the (overall job numbers).”

The study also found that employment rates did not differ dramatically between parents and other groups in states with low levels of in-person schooling, and data is mirroring what happened in the 2001 and 2007-09 recessions. 

The bottom line, Kearney said, is that the sluggish economy has been affected by factors that touch all workers: fears about contracting the coronavirus, the nationwide trend of more savings and less debt or wanting to reevaluate employment options and rethink careers before jumping back in. The fact that the number of employed parents did not disproportionately plummet, she said, is an indication that many people spent the past year simultaneously managing child care and work responsibilities on their own.

“In some sense, this underscores the burden working parents have endured,” Kearney said.

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