The typical trend in economic recessions in the United States is that men tend to lose more jobs than women. But during the pandemic, that trend has flipped: Women have been disproportionately impacted by job losses since the first COVID-19 shutdowns, and they’re not rebounding into the workforce as swiftly as men. One of the main reasons? Children — or, to be more precise, a lack of access to child care.
Unlike previous recessions, the pandemic prompted state governments to enact policies like closing schools or day-care centers — policies that were aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus — and the subsequent burden of child care fell overwhelmingly, and unsurprisingly, on women. That meant that in addition to adjusting to working from home or losing jobs that required in-person work, women also had to carry the brunt of unpaid domestic labor, from household chores to child or elder care. The result was a rise in unemployment for women with young children in particular, and women dropping out of the workforce at higher rates than men.
What’s especially alarming is that this reality has so far persisted despite the reversal of closure mandates as more people get vaccinated. According to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, while the economic recovery has so far sent most fathers in the labor force back to work, working mothers have yet to recoup their losses. The pandemic, it should be noted, did not create this gender gap in the economy; rather, it exposed what was already an unfair economy for women and exacerbated it. That’s why states and the federal government ought to rebuild an economy that can not only add more women to the workforce, but also one that can finally be accommodating to women’s needs.
One of the best, most effective ways to do that is expanding access to child care. Though the pandemic recession has been worse for women than men, it did not disadvantage all women equally: Women without children, on average, fared nearly as well as men without children. Women who suffered — those who have either been pushed out of the workforce or continue to struggle with balancing the demands of work and home life — tended to be mothers. And, as the pandemic made clear, that’s because, despite the fact that more and more women have become the breadwinners of their households, men on the whole have not stepped in significantly enough to share the responsibility of housework and child care.
While the federal government has a critical role to play in helping all parents get access to child care, President Biden’s American Families Plan, which includes more funding for child care and paid leave, is facing an uphill battle in Congress. Instead of waiting for the 50 Senate Democrats to coalesce around the plan and pass it through budget reconciliation, states should start implementing programs of their own.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts lawmakers filed legislation to make child care more affordable for families across the state — capping the cost of child care to 7 percent of a household’s income. While it comes with a steep price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the program would help lift some families out of poverty and support working mothers in staying in or reentering the workforce. It would also set an example for the nation to follow.
Another way to help working mothers is to give them direct cash payments, which would allow families to make decisions that best suit their circumstances. The federal government’s child tax credit, which just recently expanded as part of the rescue package passed in March, is a great way to do just that. But while families across the country will reap the benefits of the boosted federal program in the coming months, its expansion is set to expire after this year — though the American Families Plan, if passed, would extend it at least another four years. While Congress should extend it permanently, states could also compound its benefits by implementing more generous tax credits for families with children.
Though increasing the affordability of child care is a pivotal step in making the economy more accommodating for women, it’s just one of many changes that both government and private employers ought to consider. Flexible hours and the ability to telework on occasion would go a long way in helping people balance work with other responsibilities. Investing in industries that disproportionately employ women — and women of color in particular, who continue to see higher rates of unemployment than white women — like retail or home care, could bolster women’s wages and lead to better working conditions. And governments and businesses also ought to consider building more child care centers, especially given that many of them closed permanently after the financial losses sustained during the pandemic.
In the end, the longstanding economic inequalities that prompted women to fare worse than men during the pandemic recession have to be addressed if the United States wants to rebuild a sustainable and equitable economy. There’s a reason a lack of access to child care is a bigger barrier to career advancement for women than men. And that’s because, until now, women have been working in an economy that was largely designed for a male-dominant workforce when American society expected women to stay at home. It’s well past time for that to change.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.