Between a Rock and a Hard Place

As the country reopens, households with young children are forced to choose between income and family safety.

UOregon CTN
Jun 2, 2020 · 8 min read

By the RAPID-EC Research Group

Shortly after most states issued shelter-in-place orders, discussions began about what would make reopening possible. This discussion has subsequently only gained steam.

Lost in the media coverage about whether and when restaurants, barber shops, and other businesses should resume operating are the voices of parents and other caregivers with young children in their homes:

  • How have these parents been balancing work and parenting responsibilities during the pandemic, especially with most childcare and early education settings shut down?
  • How is reopening affecting plans for work and childcare?
  • What will await households with young children in terms of childcare availability and affordability in post-pandemic America?

These questions arise in the context of a national system of childcare and early education that was already having serious difficulty meeting the needs of America’s working families before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 has brought the system to the verge of a crisis.

The voices of parents and other caregivers with young children in their homes are missing from media coverage about reopening businesses.

A recent Washington Post story noted that in March and April alone, over 300,000 childcare workers became unemployed. Many of these providers are now struggling to make ends meet. Moreover, COVID-19-related permanent closures in childcare settings are estimated to cause the loss of half a million childcare slots.

As all 50 states are now reopening, it is clear that the pandemic has laid bare pre-existing challenges and inequities in the American child care system. Centering the voices of parents and caregivers will be key in establishing a better system.

Our RAPID-EC weekly survey extends existing published accounts about family concerns with reopening. In this post, we illuminate the specific challenges that households with young children are facing with respect to childcare and income, and show how these challenges are affecting both adult and child well-being.

Our survey findings show that many households are stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Caregivers are being forced to choose between equally undesirable options: either delay going back to work and lose income in order to assure child and family safety, or return to work and place children in childcare settings that feel unsafe.

Urgent action by federal and state policy makers is needed to address these issues.

How have childcare arrangements changed during the pandemic and how is this affecting work?

Our survey data show that a dramatic number of families with young children have lost childcare; the data further highlight significant ways that this loss has affected the ability of caregivers to work and generate income. Specifically:

  • 47% of those we surveyed reported losing childcare arrangements that they had been using prior to the pandemic. These households also indicated that they don’t expect to be able to resume using these options in the next month.
  • The greatest disruption in childcare was experiences by families using center-based child care (60% stated that their center-based care was lost). As a result, most of these families have been doing child care themselves whilst juggling work or relying on family, friends, and neighbors to meet their childcare needs.
  • 47% of all caregivers also reported being concerned that they will not be able to return to work in the next month because they lack appropriate childcare.
  • 67% of caregivers said that they expect only themselves or their spouse/partner to provide care for their child in the next month.

How is losing childcare affecting adult and child wellbeing?

We examined how loss of childcare is affecting the mental health of adults and children. Our data show that:

  • Parents and other caregivers who have lost childcare reported significantly higher rates of stress and anxiety, compared to those who have been able to continue using the same form of childcare. Notably, stress and anxiety can have a direct impact on children’s well-being, and if they persist at high levels they can even impact healthy brain development.
  • In addition, caregivers who have lost childcare report that their children are significantly more fearful and fussy than those who have not lost childcare. Although we do not have data to explain why this is the case, it is possible that the challenge of balancing work and caring for their child simultaneously is contributing to child distress. It is also possible that we are starting to witness the effects of diminished social contacts with children and adults outside the immediate household on children’s well being.

Will childcare go back to pre-pandemic business as usual?

Our data also suggest that even if households had the same childcare arrangements available as they did before the pandemic, many would not use them. In particular:

  • Among those who reported losing childcare, over 70% said that they were worried or uncomfortable about returning to the prior arrangement.
  • Households reported a number of challenges in returning to their prior arrangement, including no longer thinking the option is safe for their child or family (32%) and no longer being able to afford the option (11%).¹
  • All caregivers endorsed a number of topics that they would want to know about in order to feel comfortable returning to childcare. For example, over 60%, said they would want to know more about the following: cleaning procedures, information about numbers of children, social distancing measures to be employed, and plans related to children and adults in the childcare becoming sick.

What do these findings mean for children and families?

Balancing work and family life can be challenging for households with young children. The pandemic has increased these difficulties.

Our data suggest that many families are trying to fill the gaps created by loss of childcare by caring for their child themselves while continuing to work or relying on family members or neighbors.

Although we found that these arrangements are associated with significantly increased stress and mental health difficulties for both adults and children, it does not appear that reopening will necessarily result in households choosing to return to their prior arrangements. This is the case for two reasons:

  1. As noted above, the permanent closure of many childcares may prevent this from even being a possibility for many households.
  2. Even when pre-existing childcare arrangements are able to resume operations, many parents and caregivers have both safety and financial concerns about using these settings.

Some households with the financial means and flexible jobs may choose to permanently shift to stay-at-home care provided by a parent (or in some cases, a grandparent).

However, for the vast majority of households with young children in the US this will likely not be an option because of their financial circumstances, the requirements of their work, or both. For these households, the demand for any available childcare slot in many communities will greatly exceed the supply, which will create waiting lists, competition for available slots, and other problems.

In addition, even with federal aid to help reopening childcare settings, the ongoing cost of operations in the post-pandemic period — including costs of enhanced cleaning procedures and fewer children per provider to allow for social distancing — may place the cost of what limited childcare there is beyond the reach of many low- and middle-income households

Proactive measures must be taken immediately to prevent a crisis of childcare availability and affordability and support the large sector of the workforce with young children in their households. Specific recommendations are below.

Recommendations

1. Adequately finance the stabilization of the child care industry. Advocates and a number of national legislators are currently requesting $50B in federal stimulus funds to ensure programs can re-open and stay open to support the rebuilding of our economy.

2. Focus childcare re-opening and rebuilding efforts on parent needs and preferences and assurances of quality for children. Information about what types of settings and experiences families want for their children in a post-COVID world must drive policymakers’ decisions.

3. Meet the immediate needs of parents and other caregivers to support the developmental and emotional needs of young children. Build capacity in communities to provide effective, appropriate support to parents, families, and other informal caregivers to ensure that children continue to learn and thrive during this period of disruption.

4. Clearly communicate what safe childcare looks like and the steps being taken to get there. Public health and childcare leaders must work together to clearly articulate to parents and the public what safe childcare looks like and how parents can be sure that returning to care will not put their child in danger.

5. Ensure that childcare providers receive support and adequate protection to promote healthy and safe environments for children. Enable providers’ access to COVID tests, personal protective equipment and supplies, paid sick leave, enhanced wages, and training on COVID safety practices.

6. Require employers to allow flexibility of work schedules and additional time off for parents facing a lack of adequate childcare.

7. Maintain real-time data and information at the state and community level on available childcare options for families, and increase efforts to make it easier for families to find and locate childcare.

Suggestions for further reading

Our team has curated a selection of important background readings for anyone interested in further exploring the effects of reopening child care.

Parents Balance Risks, Needs as Child Care Centers Reopen,” New York Times.

Working Parents Could Face Lack of Child Care as the Economy Restarts,” The Hill.

Is It Safe for Day Care Centers to Be Open Right Now?” Vox

Will Early Learning, After-School Shift to Home-Based Care?” Education Dive

About the project

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last winter, there were over 24 million children age five and under living in the United States. This period of early childhood is a critical window that sets the stage for health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, it is essential during the current health and economic crisis to listen to the voices of households with young children.

The weekly survey of households with children age five and under launched on April 6, 2020. Since then, we have been gathering weekly data about child and adult emotional well-being, financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, and access to child care/early childhood education.

We will continue to report on these issues as we learn more from each new weekly survey. We will also be producing policy briefs that make concrete recommendations about how to address the challenges we are seeing emerge from the family surveys.

Our goal is to use what we are hearing from families to improve the well-being of all households with young children, during the pandemic and beyond.

Notes

¹ One important note regarding this week’s RAPID-EC data is that this is a national sample of over 1000 households that is geographically representative; however, in contrast to data in prior postings, this week’s survey is predominantly middle and upper income. In next week’s posting, we report on differences among low to high income households in childcare circumstances during the pandemic and moving forward with reopening.

RAPID-EC Project

Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey Project

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