The coronavirus pandemic has hit working parents hard, and when I say working parents, I mean mostly working mothers. Unemployment is high for everyone, but it’s worse for women than for men, and women are more likely to have left the labor market or to be thinking about quitting their jobs. Relatedly, the brunt of caring for children suddenly at home all day every day is falling on women.
The childcare industry, meanwhile, is suffering, putting more than 325,000 people—overwhelmingly women, and nearly half Black, Asian, or Latino—out of work since February. If childcare centers go out of business, as threatens to happen without government help, then those women’s jobs remain gone, and other women’s ability to work is threatened by the disproportionate amount of child care they end up shouldering. The case for a major government funding program could not be clearer, but somehow it hasn’t happened.
Democrats have introduced a $50 billion aid bill in both the House and the Senate, but a month later, childcare workers and centers along with parents who need child care are all still waiting on that. The CARES Act directed some money to Child Care and Development Block Grants and to Head Start, and the HEROES Act would send more to Child Care and Development Block Grants, but that would still leave out much of the industry. And while childcare providers are theoretically eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, many haven’t been able to get those loans and the program doesn’t meet their needs in any case.
Even some congressional Republicans—mostly women—recognize the need for some kind of action. Sens. Joni Ernst and Kelly Loeffler (both of them facing challenging elections this fall) have proposed $25 billion for childcare providers. And Rep. Jackie Walorski recently explained the issue very clearly.
If childcare centers shut down, “parents in all industries will be unable to go back to work, significantly slowing our own economic recovery,” she said. That means “Childcare is exactly the type of smart investment we should be prioritizing as we safely reopen and rebuild America’s economy.”
While Congress drags its feet, largely but not entirely thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, women are bearing an immense burden. For women in two-income families, it’s one kind of burden—that of trying to do paid work while taking on the lion’s share of child care as well. There are some toweringly shitty men out there, but this is a structural issue, not just a question of individual relationships. As much of an emergency as this is for women in two-income families, though, “in families headed by single mothers, there’s often simply no one else to take on the responsibility,” Prism’s Ashton Lattimore wrote last month. “That makes childcare availability all the more critical, especially for mothers of color like Cecilia, who is Mexican American, as women of color are more likely to be their household’s primary earner or a co-breadwinner.”
Virtually everyone is struggling in the pandemic, but child care shows us how unevenly the challenges fall. Women are hit harder than men. Black women and other women of color are hit harder than white women. And if it doesn’t get fixed, the consequences will be dire. “We need to stabilize the childcare system or we won’t have a robust economic recovery,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. “Not getting this stuff in place will mean women will be the ones who are more likely to have to stay home,” said the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz—and if women who have previously worked are pushed to stay home while hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear from an industry dominated by women and with many many Black, Asian, and Latina workers, decades of efforts toward equality get wiped out.