Working women face another setback as virus disrupts school plans
WASHINGTON – Working women, whose childcare duties increased dramatically during the pandemic, brace for yet another blow to their incomes and careers as the coronavirus resurgence undermines plans to keep children safe full-time school.
After 18 months of closures, e-learning and canceled summer camps, the return to classrooms was supposed to be a turning point for women, whose labor market participation plunged to its lowest level in more than three decades during the pandemic. But as Covid-19 cases increased over the summer, more than 40,000 women dropped out of the workforce between July and August, even as Americans returned to work in droves, according to government data. Men returned to work during this period at more than three times this rate.
This gave new ammunition to the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers in their willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to overhaul the nation’s child care sector to make it more accessible and affordable, arguing that it does. is the only way to get families back on track. . They worry about a repeat last September, when more than five times as many women as men fell into the workforce.
“I don’t see how we can really have people returning to work, especially women, in the number we need if we don’t provide child care,” said Representative Katherine Clark ( D-Mass.), A member of the House Democratic leadership, said in an interview. The latest employment figures, she said, “are a blinking red light that now is the time to invest in women in our workforce.”
Republicans say the price – $ 450 billion – is far too high, and accuse Democrats of trying to destroy a viable, private business for the benefit of a government-controlled system. Even some Democrats are complaining that the legislation, which is part of the $ 3.5 trillion package Democrats are trying to push through Congress, would provide benefits to high-income families who don’t need them.
In the short term, the main area of concern is the coronavirus itself and how to deal with it so that parents feel comfortable sending their older children to school and leaving the younger ones in daycare. . This fear of children catching the virus, coupled with lingering uncertainty about whether schools might have to close if students or teachers are to quarantine themselves, is enough to prevent some parents from working, as schools close or not, economists say.
“Schools are our Achilles heel,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. As for the participation of women in the labor market, she added: “We really cannot solve it until we know that children can return to school safely in a consistent manner. “
Coronavirus cases have been spreading in schools across the United States since July, when the first students returned in person. As of Sept. 13, nearly 1,700 schools in 386 districts in 38 states had closed in-person education, according to the Burbio data service, which tracks 1,200 school districts nationwide, including the largest 200. The company found that schools move to virtual instruction more than half the time, while nearly four in 10 closings resulted in no instruction.
The biggest concern is with women with young children, who have struggled to stay attached to the workforce throughout the pandemic, research shows. Women with children under 6 made up 10% of the workforce in February 2020, but accounted for nearly a quarter of unanticipated job losses, according to a new study by Melinda Pitts, director of the center. research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
The longer-term goal of Democratic lawmakers and the Biden administration is how to further strengthen the child care industry and help it recover from the pandemic. Overall employment in the field nationwide has declined by more than 12% since February 2020, leaving nearly 127,000 workers jobless, according to data from the Ministry of Labor. The sector – where 95 percent of all workers are women – has shed more jobs each of the past two months, including 5,900 in August.
Investments in the industry would have cascading benefits, supporters say, helping parents return to work and increasing economic activity now while preparing children to stay in school longer and earn more in the workplace. their work as adults.
The goal of the $ 450 billion investment proposed by President Joe Biden is twofold: funds for child care providers to help cover costs and improve workers’ wages, as well as to money for families, in part to ensure that no one pays more than 7 percent of their income on the care of children under 5.
“It is so important that we reopen the schools, but it is also extremely important that we deal with this child care issue,” said Representative Mikie Sherrill (DN.J.). Sherrill led a successful campaign to change the House version of the budget package during committee markup so that the 7% cap on costs is applied to all families, not just those earning less than 150% of the median income of their state, as Biden had originally proposed.
“Congress needs to understand that moms are losing ground, it’s the American middle class that is losing ground,” Sherrill said. “So, even if it is a policy in favor of women and children, because we want quality childcare services, it is also, and this is important, a policy in favor of women and children. for the growth of our economy. “
Republican lawmakers have backed down, arguing the plans are too generous and would limit parents’ choice in child care while asserting a role for government in an area they believe the private sector should continue to manage.
Representative Virginia Foxx (RN.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, who discussed aspects of the child care bill, said during a hearing that lawmakers should “focus on ensuring that hard-working taxpayers can find the best care for their children rather than blindly throwing money at the problem and calling it a solution.”
And the push to lift the income limits that families can claim at the 7% cap, despite garnering support from a broad coalition of Democrats, has drawn criticism within the party – including from the party. Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the committee. Scott said he reluctantly accepted the amendment only because “without him committee members threaten to jeopardize the whole bill.”
A large majority of voters support the proposals. According to a POLITICO / Morning Consult poll conducted at the end of last month, two in three registered voters, or 66%, said they either somewhat or strongly support federal funding for affordable child care. This includes 87% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans.
The Biden administration on Wednesday released a report outlining what it sees as the economic rationale for large federal investments in child care, saying the current system leads to “chronic underinvestment” in children and hinders the ability of working parents to contribute fully to the economy.
The report highlights how the United States lags behind its peers when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce, and cites a study finding that a dollar invested in preschool education – that Biden seeks to make it free and universal – pays for itself over nine times in terms of the benefits it brings to society.
“For so many workers, and for women in particular, child care is a prerequisite for being able to work,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a Treasury Department event unveiling the report. “If we intend to fully recover from the pandemic, if we intend to be fully competitive globally, we must ensure the full participation of women in the labor market. “