The situation could hardly be more stark: working-class parents and children are being dramatically set back financially, physically, and emotionally by the pandemic while a handful of billionaires are seeing their fortunes skyrocket to obscene levels. Ruling-class representatives like California Governor Gavin Newsom’s kids attend reopened private schools, at the same time as working-class moms are leaving much-needed jobs for lack of childcare.
Pandemic life, with daycare closures and kids in distance learning, has piled even more work onto parents’ shoulders. Meeting kids’ social, emotional, and physical needs all day in the absence of the school environment, helping them through complicated “distance learning,” and managing increased workloads of cooking and housework all day, every day, is exhausting and overwhelming. The widespread affordable housing crisis predating the pandemic means that families are trying to do distance learning in overcrowded conditions. Juggling childcare, distance learning, and the demands of a job is like falling further and further behind in a high-stakes race no matter how fast you run. No matter how hard you work, how little you sleep, how much you neglect your own needs for relaxation or exercise, it’s never enough.
Compounding Pressures on Working Parents
When lockdowns first went into effect in many communities last March, no one anticipated – or planned for – school closures to last for an entire year. Stress levels are through the roof for parents, and especially mothers who do most of the childcare and housework. Burnout, a recognized health condition whose symptoms include fatigue, lack of motivation, headaches, stomachaches, and hair loss, is rampant among working mothers. A recent study showed that nearly 10 million working mothers, or 25%, are suffering from burnout. The lack of childcare is worsening parent-child relationships on a broad scale. 50% of mothers who are spending more time with their kids during the pandemic report having more frustration with them, according to one report.
The pandemic childcare crisis has serious negative consequences for both parents and kids. Distance learning represents a massive increase in parents’ workload for significantly diminished returns. School districts in distance learning reported dramatic increases in the number of failing grades at the end of the first term. Kids who need special education services often have major difficulties adapting to online learning. It’s becoming clear that the isolation of staying at home and the increased alienation of online-only interactions with teachers and peers is negatively impacting kids’ mental health in a serious way. The proportion of emergency room visits that were for mental health is up 24% for younger kids and 31% for teens in a three month period in 2020 compared to 2019. With kids stuck at home and glued to screens for hours, childhood obesity is expected to worsen. Children, and especially children in low-income families, are being harmed in a myriad of ways by the disastrous approach that both state and federal governments have taken to dealing with the pandemic.
This is especially the case for Black and Latina mothers who have left the workforce in higher numbers – either because of lack of childcare forcing them to quit or because they were laid off. Black women are also more likely to work in front-line, essential jobs meaning they do not have the choice to work from home.
What If You Can’t Work From Home?
As draining as trying to work from home while caring for kids can be, for parents who need to show up in person to work, this isn’t even an option. If you don’t make enough to pay for childcare, and you don’t have extended family that can help, you are forced to choose between your job or your kids’ education, safety and well-being. Some kids are staying home alone at very young ages, while others are in care situations where there isn’t anyone available to help them with distance learning.
Mothers in particular have been forced to cut back on hours or quit their jobs all together in significant numbers to stay home with their kids. One survey estimated that two million mothers have left the workforce during the pandemic, and the New York Times estimated that one million mothers quit their jobs because of school closures. Women’s workforce participation has been pushed back to its 1988 level. Again, this is particularly acute for Black and Latino moms.
For working-class people and women in particular, starting a family has always been daunting from an economic perspective. Unlike many other developed countries, there is no guaranteed paid parental leave, no universal childcare or preschool in the U.S., and women who have children face a significant financial penalty on their future earnings. The pandemic childcare crisis, in many regions, has taken away the one universal, free service providing childcare: public schools, which offer education, meals, physical activity, etc.
The pandemic-triggered economic crisis has been absolutely devastating to tens of millions of working-class people, and it is particularly hitting women in large part because of the lack of childcare. Women who have had to leave the workforce are missing income, and time out of the workforce for childcare is one of the key reasons for the gender wage gap. Women will be paying for this childcare crisis for years to come in lost wages and lost opportunities for advancement on the job.
What’s On Offer To Solve The Childcare Crisis?
When the economy first shut down in March 2020, child poverty shot up with mass job loss. The initial stimulus bill, the CARES Act, made a significant difference, sending the poverty rate below its January level. This highlights how vicious U.S. capitalism is to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society at baseline; over 10 million children were officially living in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world before the pandemic crisis began. However, one-time $1,200 checks, $500 per child checks, and the temporary $600 unemployment top-ups provided only temporary relief. The child poverty rate is now back to near its April peak, illustrating the dire need for immediate COVID relief.
As of this writing, Congress is working on Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, and it’s not clear what will ultimately go into law. However, the proposed child tax credit would deliver monthly payments of $300 per young child and $250 per child over six years, and it is expected that this measure alone would cut child poverty in half.
Unemployed parents would get a further $400 monthly top-up under Biden’s plan, and everyone would get a $1,400 one-time check. In a further sign that the ruling class is getting worried that the dire economic conditions are bad for the capitalist system itself, even Republican Mitt Romney has his own plan for $300 per child monthly payments. Biden’s child tax credit is proposed to be a temporary measure, but Democrats in Congress have indicated that they would try to make it permanent. Temporary payments are desperately needed and will make a big difference to working-class families, but the childcare crisis and its impact on women and children shine a light on deeper problems.
Other than the 6 hours per day, 5 days per week provided by the public school system during the school year, every other aspect of human reproduction is an individual responsibility in the U.S. From the lack of guaranteed free health care, to daycare and preschool which is exorbitantly expensive to working-class parents, raising a child is an enormous burden on parents, and on women in particular. But this is in no way the natural order of things. When the U.S. needed women in the workforce during World War II, the government created a system of free, high-quality childcare, and then dismantled it once the soldiers came home.
Parents don’t just need monthly payments, they need a totally overhauled system of free, high-quality childcare. They need a robust, science-based public health response of mass testing, paid quarantines and, when necessary, lockdowns with no loss in pay to get the virus under control, and keep it there so that schools and daycares can be operated safely. They need guaranteed paid parental leave, affordable housing and free health care to be able to raise healthy kids who aren’t exposed to the harmful effects of constant financial stress and poverty. A program that would provide for the basic needs of kids and families would cost a small fraction of the massive accumulated wealth of the billionaire class.