Schools across the U.S. are closed because of the coronavirus, and unlikely to reopen safely anytime soon. Parents are exhausted from constant, round-the-clock care while trying to work from home; some have chosen to leave their jobs, or switch to part-time work, just to take care of their kids. And kids themselves are slipping behind academically.
Now comes the bad news: We haven’t seen the worst of it yet.
When the economist Betsey Stevenson looks at the pandemic-era economic crisis, she sees a long-simmering child care crisis that has suddenly surged to the foreground of people’s lives—and whose true scope we’ve barely begun to reckon with. Its potential to inflict lasting damage to the economy is enormous, and it’s getting short shrift in the recovery plans coming out of Washington.
“The work of recovering from it will not end just because we have a vaccine,” says Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “We are making choices right now about where we will be as an economy in 20 years, in 30 years, based on what we do with these kids.”
Among those most likely to be affected are working mothers, who shoulder an outsize share of child care responsibilities, and have suddenly had far more work dropped in their laps. Women already need to make difficult choices between work advancement and their family roles, which can bring down their incomes over time; Stevenson expects the crisis to make that conflict sharply worse: “The impact of the child care crisis on women’s outcomes is going to be felt over the next decade.”