Childcare issues were a main reason women left the workforce. That’s an economic problem, one expert said.
- Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and the cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast.
- He recently spoke with Reshma Saujani, the founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms.
- The nonprofit advocates for better childcare benefits and policies to bring women back to work.
The early days of the pandemic were terrible for all American workers — but the job losses that followed had a truly catastrophic impact on women. “Thirty years of progress in women’s workforce participation were wiped out basically in nine months,” author Reshma Saujani said on the latest episode of “Pitchfork Economics.”
Saujani rose to national prominence as the founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code, which is dedicated to closing the gender pay gap in Big Tech by empowering and educating young women to be programmers. As a response to the gender inequities that were worsened by the pandemic, she founded the Marshall Plan for Moms to establish and advocate for pay equity for mothers in the American workforce and change longstanding cultural expectations in order to “make workplaces work for women,” as Saujani put it.
There are several reasons why women suffered the economic brunt of the early-pandemic jobs collapse. First, women in America make up the majority of low-wage workforces that were hit particularly hard by early lockdowns, such as education and leisure and hospitality. But childcare is one of the biggest reasons why the lockdowns were economically disastrous for women: Schools were closed, children were home, and millions of women — who performed 114 more additional hours of childcare in 2020 than men, according to one study — had no choice but to leave the workforce to take care of their kids.
Despite consistently improving jobs numbers for the last two years, that gender gap is still huge. While male workers have entirely recovered the jobs that they lost in the early pandemic, as of February of this year nearly two million women who left the workforce during the pandemic were still out of work, including a disproportionate number of women of color.
Ultimately, Saujani said, the Marshall Plan for Moms wants to reframe the childcare debate. “Childcare is not a personal problem — it’s an economic issue,” she said. Not only does the childcare shortage decrease the available pool of workers, but workers who have left the workforce have less money to spend, driving down consumer demand for all businesses.
If employers want to break through the labor shortage and find quality employees, they have to change their cultures. “The only way that parents, in particular, mothers, can come back to work is if they have childcare. They literally can’t work without it,” Saujani added.
The solution: better company benefits paired with policy change
The Marshall Plan for Moms seeks to close the pay gap for working mothers through a combination of cultural change, policy work, and business partnerships. A study issued by the nonprofit last month makes a strong economic case for employers to offer childcare benefits or improve their existing offerings: Some 88% of mothers with children ranging from newborn to age five said that they’d be more likely to work for an employer offering benefits including some combination of paid childcare, flexibility in working from home for at least part of the workweek, or set schedules allowing them to plan childcare.
American employers haven’t traditionally included childcare as a part of their benefits package. Amazon, for example, touts the perks it offers dog owners who bring their pets to work — “Reception desks in every office building have a bucket of dog treats, there are always dog relief areas nearby, and even some offices have dog-friendly water fountains,” the company reports — but its parental perks are not nearly as elaborate. A resource for parents who work at Amazon talks up flexible schedules and employee access to “a network of more than 2 million caregivers” for their children, though the site takes great pains to spell out that “Amazon pays for the memberships to find care, while employees pay for care services.”
Those kinds of half-measures are not enough for most parents anymore. More than 16,000 childcare providers closed permanently between December 2019 and March 2021, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America, and the average annual cost of childcare is now more than $10,000. “The business model of childcare is broken,” Saujani said.
That’s where good policy comes in. The Marshall Plan for Moms calls for national paid-sick and family-leave laws, investments in quality childcare, and an expanded child tax credit like the one passed by Congress last year. States and cities around the nation have passed some combination of those laws, but the lack of universality leaves too many behind.
In the meantime, lawmakers could be doing more to address the affordable childcare drought that’s holding hundreds of thousands of women out of the workforce. Rewriting regulations to allow providers to build and open childcare facilities in unused downtown office space would entice workers back to the office, and creating networks of family childcare and shared service alliances could help create a safety net of childcare providers for parents who only need occasional help.
At a time when nearly nine out of every 10 American women are becoming mothers, the lack of childcare protections at the federal level looks more and more like economic malpractice. In order to truly get America fully back to work, the Marshall Plan for Moms argues, we can’t just abandon moms to work this out on their own—employers and lawmakers need to recognize that childcare is an essential part of the economy.