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'Mothers of elementary school-aged children' key for lagging labor force participation

·Senior Editor
·4 min read

The May jobs report included an unexpected drop in U.S. labor force participation compared to the previous month, indicating a lagging aspect of the ongoing economic recovery.

Some experts are pointing to an ongoing lack of child care.

“There are a number of factors that are acutely affecting certain parts of the population, whether those are acute health risks or child care issues,” Wendy Edelberg, a senior fellow in economic studies and director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “So certainly, we see a lot of evidence that for mothers of elementary school-aged children, particularly in states that have seen a lot of school closures, they’re feeling particularly hard hit by those school closures.”

The overall labor force participation rate was 61.6%. The rate for white women ages 20 and over in May 2021 was 56.3%, compared to 69.7% for white men ages 20 and over. For Black women in the same age group, their participation rate was 60.6% versus 66.7% for Black men.

“We need to make it easier on families and we need to make it more appropriately compensated for the workforce so that we could make this economic bargain where everyone can get what they want. Right now, the only way we’re going to be able to do that is to put huge public investment in the caregiving economy," Amy Matsui, director of income security at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), told Yahoo Finance.

Six-year-old Leo completes a homeschool activity suggested by the online learning website of his infant school, as his mother Moira, an employee of a regional council, works from home in the village of Marsden, near Huddersfield, northern England on May 15, 2020, during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged millions unable to work from home to return to their jobs under the new guidelines, which do not apply in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
A son and mother work together. (Photo: OLI SCARFF / AFP)

'The pressure of this is really relentless'

Women’s labor force participation rate plummeted in 2020 — as schools closed and children spent all of their time at home — and has struggled to recover. 

“The pressure of this is really relentless,” Matsui said. “Women are feeling not just stretched, not just tapped out, but really in between a rock and a hard [place].”

The recovery for working women has been uneven: In September 2020, 865,000 women left the labor force — including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women — which was four times the number of men.

This is likely because that September is when most schools started their school years, and many students still had to learn from home. And while some parents are fortunate enough to be able to pay for child care, others are in a trickier situation.

“If you have someone who’s working and they’re not working a 9-to-5 job, so they may not be able to afford child care for all of their hours of work because night and weekend care are more expensive, they may not be getting the kind of care they ideally would want for their family,” Matsui said. 

Labor Force Participation: Women. (Source: FRED)
Labor Force Participation: Women. (Source: FRED)

The federal government has tried to help: President Biden’s $1.9-trillion stimulus bill included a provision expanding the Child Tax Credit, which would benefit more than 93% of children in the U.S.

For every child younger than 6 years old, families will receive $300 a month. The number shrinks to $250 a month for each child 17 years or under and phases out for couples who earn more than $150,0000. Parents could potentially use the tax credit to pay for child care, something that is not publicly provided in the U.S.

Democrats are also pushing for child care to be included in the infrastructure package that President Biden is trying to get passed in Congress. And while some have mocked the idea that child care is infrastructure, Matsui points to America's last recovery from a financial crisis.

“One of the things that we saw from the last recession is that there’s a lag for women getting back in the workforce,” she said. “Unless we have this caregiving infrastructure – because what do you need to go to work when you have children? — some of the caregiving needs are going to be met if schools are open but it doesn’t address what happens with younger kids.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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