Childcare as a necessary part of a healthy labor force

Happy Women’s History Month! A couple weeks ago, the College hosted Georgia Women in Higher Education’s annual conference, and I had the privilege of attending much of it. Topics discussed in the sessions I attended ranged from leadership and mentorship to employee burnout to effects of addiction on faculty and students.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that in every session and at every social gathering I attended during the conference with almost exclusively female participants the subject of work-family balance came up. Dads are great, and they are doing more and more in terms of non-labor market household production, but, still, in America and in most parts of the world, the duties of child rearing and housework fall primarily on women.

According to OECD data, working-age women in the U.S. spend 247 minutes per day engaged in paid work and 271 minutes in unpaid work, which housework, shopping, childcare or other caregiving, and volunteer activities. Working-age men spend 332 minutes in paid work and 166 minutes per day in unpaid work. The remaining time is divided into personal care, leisure, and other.

With many of the childcare responsibilities still falling to women, women are the first to go from the labor market when childcare becomes unavailable or too costly. The International Labour Organization estimates that 41% of women who are not in the labor force globally are out because of their unpaid care responsibilities.

This is what we saw happening at the beginning of the pandemic, when women dropped out of the labor force at higher rates than men. Some of that gap was due to the types of industries that were hit hardest by the pandemic, but a lot of it was the fact that closures of schools and daycares required moms to switch to full-time caregiving. In fact, women with young children experienced a greater rate of job loss during the pandemic than men or women without young children. This is likely still a factor in the missing workers phenomenon my colleague Dr. Mathews wrote about for this column back in December. He noted that even as we emerge from the pandemic and “we’re hiring” signs are everywhere, a lot of workers are still not returning. The female labor force is still 1.5 percent smaller and the female labor force participation rate is still 1.3 percent smaller than they were pre-pandemic. The male labor force and participation rates are smaller, too, but not by as much.

It is important to recognize, too, that the childcare crisis in America was only exacerbated by the pandemic, not caused by it. A report published in 2019 by the Council for A Strong America found that the value of productivity losses due to childcare issues in the U.S. was as high as $57 billion per year.

This is why there is a conversation right now in America around considering childcare reforms among other necessary infrastructure improvements we need to make our economy stronger. Indeed, our economy is stronger when we make provisions for parents—and especially women— to be more active in the labor force. A March 2021 article from Forbes highlighted ways in which men benefit socially, emotionally, and in their career progression when they have close relationships with women at work. The benefits to women and children are perhaps more obvious. Among them are fewer gaps in employment that can limit career advancement, more financial independence for women, lower rates of child poverty.

Social investment in childcare is smart, supply-side economics for the labor market. Three generations from now, it won’t matter how many train tracks and bridges we have repaired if we have not done the necessary work of investing in the women of today’s workforce and the children of tomorrow’s.

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Dr. Melissa Trussell is a professor in the School of Business and Public Management at College of Coastal Georgia who works with the college’s Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies. Contact her at mtrussell@ccga.edu.

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