The government, which includes lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, has failed working parents. And no matter who wins the presidency, we have a new opportunity before us to reset and truly ease the burden many of us are facing.
Those who are lucky enough to still have their jobs, despite the pandemic-induced economic downturn, are struggling to keep going. In fact, four times as many women than men dropped out of the workforce in September 2020, likely related to the start of the new school year and one parent managing the demands of distance learning.
Our already-strained childcare system wasn't set up to support parents amid Covid-19. Many of the situations below are now typical, with at least one parent:
-working from home while elementary-school students are distance learning at in their home
-working from home while their younger children are home because daycares are closed, unsafe or at capacity
-working hours beyond when schools aren't open
But there are innovative ways government can step in and help working parents, the countless unemployed and even themselves. While we are grateful that unemployment benefits are flowing to those who need it, what if the government gave extra incentive to those who are out of work? Instead of $504 a week (the maximum weekly unemployment benefit New York offers, but it varies state by state), let's say the federal government bumped it up to dole out $1,000 a week to those willing to take care of small children, manage distance learning for the elementary school set, and drop off, pick up and look after kids whose in-school hours have been reduced? Perhaps the extra cash for childcare could even be offered as additional social security benefits to older people who might have seen their retirement benefits run out because of the recession.
For parents who are home with school-age children, distance learning isn't merely plopping a child in front of a screen all day and going about your business. Children, especially in kindergarten through second grade, need help navigating apps, solving tech issues, staying still and engaged and following their teachers' instructions. Plus, with another caregiver who isn't one of the child's parents, working parents could also be spared from all the food preparation and serving that takes up too many precious minutes during business hours.
Parents who are home with even smaller ones who need constant supervision and entertainment would benefit, too, because they could similarly concentrate on work instead of always on caregiving. And parents who can't be home with their kids, because they are essential workers or have been forced to return to their workplaces, would benefit because they'd have affordable care, instead of prohibitively expensive options because of current scarcity.
Governments would benefit because the extra investment in the already-unemployed would keep more parents from losing their jobs when they inevitably can't keep up; the demands of remote learning or caring for small children interfere with business priorities. If there are fewer people overall receiving unemployment benefits, even if some are receiving a greater weekly payment, the government spends less in total.
Technology would make pairing caregivers and families relatively easy. State governments already know who is receiving unemployment benefits. The federal government already knows who receives social security benefits. Information can be disseminated through local school districts for families to sign up. And a system can put families and caregivers into categories based on what level of risk, in terms of how many other people they can see and with what infection-spread-reducing tactics, they're willing to assume.
To be sure, wealthy parents may not need this help. They have access to resources that money can buy. They can join the pricey learning pods where parents pool funds to pay a semi-private tutor, or, in dual-career upper-class homes, one parent can stop working (though this usually leads to moms stepping out of the workforce) which has a domino effect of hurting women's economic progress. But when only high-income people can weather a months-long, perhaps year-long, storm, it causes the financial and education gaps among the classes to become irreparable chasms.
Effective remote learning also needs stable and powerful Wi-Fi and decent technology in the form of laptops. The federal and state government can certainly enable both. Think of a school year where no days are lost to snow or heat waves. Can this positively impact learning? We believe the answer is yes.
As we focus on getting people back to work and the economy restarted, reducing unemployment is a priority. This strategy is a great way to create win-wins until we get a safe, effective vaccine to a majority of the population. Children who are cared for and supported allow their parents to work without stress or disruption. Happy families make for happy communities.
Subha V. Barry is a world recognized diversity and inclusion expert and currently serves as the president of Working Mother Media. Meredith Bodgas was the editor-in-chief of Working Mother Magazine and workingmother.com and is a sought-after speaker on the intersection of work and life.