Childcare not to blame for employment troubles


The disappointing April jobs report raised new questions about how government policies, such as enhanced unemployment insurance, have slowed the economic recovery by discouraging people from returning to work. Some have suggested that closed childcare facilities and schools, not employment disincentives, are to blame for a slowing return to work, requiring more childcare funding. But a new analysis for the Peterson Institute of International Economics (PIIE) found that being a parent has not been a determining factor, suggesting that child-related challenges are not to blame for our current employment situation. Policymakers will need to identify and address the other causes for our employment problems.

We have all seen the data showing that employment fell the most among mothers during the pandemic. Our own Employment and Safety Net Survey found that the employment rate for mothers of young children fell more than fathers and childless men in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, before rebounding.

For most of us, intuition pointed to closed schools and childcare centers as the cause for these declines. However, a new analysis by Jason Furman, Melissa Kearney, and Wilson Powell III also points out that “women with and without young children differ on other dimensions that are related to employment outcomes, such as age, industry, marital status, income, and race and ethnicity.”

When the authors controlled for these other factors, they found that being a mother itself did not account for any of the differential employment declines between mothers and childless women from early 2020 to early 2021:

“Combining these two facts means that any childcare issues that have pushed mothers out of the workforce accounts for a negligible share of the overall reduction in employment since the beginning of the pandemic adjusting only for age differences. The estimated amount of the overall decline in employment that can be explained by challenges particular to mothers of young children is even smaller (zero, in fact), if we adjust the comparisons between mothers of young children and other women to control for education and industry of work.”

Further, they found that even though mothers experienced larger employment declines than childless women (which was explained by different education levels, ages, and work industries), childless men experienced larger employment declines than fathers did. The net effect was that employment declined less for parents (mothers and fathers) than for childless adults.

A series of reports have shown that women have regained much of their job loss relative to men — and that childcare is not the main reason for whatever gap remains. Studies by Gallup and the McKinsey Global Institute have also concluded that industry differences and other factors, not parenthood, explain the disproportionate employment declines among mothers.

On one hand, this is welcome news. It suggests that the childcare sector rebounded and was largely able to accommodate the needs of working parents during the pandemic, something our survey results also found.

On the other hand, given the extent of childcare disruptions and school closings, parents obviously had to absorb tremendous burden balancing child-related and work responsibilities in order to adapt without a net negative effect on employment. From the authors of the PIIE analysis:

“Our examination of data on employment declines among parents with young children and others over the course of the pandemic suggests that overall, parents of young children did not leave the workforce substantially more than other comparable individuals.”

These findings have important implications for government policies. Policymakers continue to raise concerns over female labor force participation and claim that greater government assistance for childcare and paid leave are needed to address this problem. Calls for more action come even after the American Rescue Plan included $24 billion to stabilize childcare providers who faced hardships due the pandemic, $15 billion to increase childcare subsidies, and another $8 billion in tax credits for childcare.

Returning female labor force participation to pre-pandemic levels (or higher) should be a policy goal because it supports economic growth and is crucial to a strong labor market. Childcare assistance can play a role, with research showing that assistance can increase maternal employment rates. However, other factors are more important in explaining the weak job growth that currently exists. This calls on policymakers to focus on bringing more workers into employment, no matter their parent status, by addressing disincentives in unemployment insurance and other government programs, as well as the underlying issue of skill mismatch that keeps many out of the labor force or in low-wage jobs.

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