Who’s Watching the Kids: COVID-19’s Unequal Impact on Mothers and the Pursuit of Long-term Affordable Childcare

April 13, 2023 by Lauren Taylor Smith


Many families in the United States struggle with accessing and affording quality childcare. In a country where childcare can often be the largest part of a family’s budget, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the inequities that already existed for caregivers, particularly working mothers. In a break from other developed nations, the United States does not have a universal (i.e., publicly financed) childcare system.[1] Despite some low-income families being eligible for federally subsidized care or a childcare tax write-off,[2] more can and should be done to ensure all families have equal access to the high-quality care their children deserve.


The Unequal Impact of COVID-19 on Working Mothers

In 2020, families across the country grappled with the pandemic-related closures of childcare centers, schools, afterschool programs, and summer camps.[3] However, the intersectional impact of gender, class, and race played a role in which caregivers had the ability to provide care or support their children with remote learning.[4] It is not an exaggeration to say that many parents experienced their childcare duties double overnight in the spring of 2020.[5] Perhaps unsurprisingly, a disproportionate amount of these additional care hours and household responsibilities fell on the shoulders of women.[6] Studies of labor force exits during the pandemic don’t just show that women were leaving the workforce at higher rates than men (some estimate as high as a four-to-one ratio[7]), but that these exit rates were even higher for mothers.[8]

The pandemic’s amplification of existing inequities also affected lower-earning mothers’ higher labor force exit rates.[9] This disparate impact can likely be explained by the closure of formerly free or inexpensive childcare options, like schools, now requiring a version of homeschooling that lower-income women without remote working capabilities had to navigate around or else forgo employment.[10] Lower-earning women also had an increased likelihood to work in service jobs that faced more significant layoffs during the pandemic or inflexible jobs that presented greater challenges to securing care.[11] Even before the pandemic, mothers in the workforce would sometimes have to sacrifice advancement or career opportunities if they lacked childcare, or if the care they could secure did not meet the demands of their work schedules.12

The pandemic also exacerbated pre-existing racial disparities in childcare access, such as Black women having more difficulty finding childcare than their white counterparts.[13] Black mothers especially felt the impossible choice between employment and childcare because the majority “contribute significantly” to household finances and are comparatively less likely to have the privilege of relying on another contributing income in the household.[14] In all, the lack of available childcare options during the pandemic had a greater effect on women of color and low-income families, with these same marginalized groups also being less likely to have a backup if the childcare they previously secured fell through.[15]


Affording Childcare

Even before the pandemic, families had difficulty securing quality childcare options and finding ways to afford programs that could end up costing as much as a year of college tuition.[16] One option was for families to apply for childcare financial assistance through a federally funded voucher or subsidy program executed by individual states and territories.[17] For parents seeking early childcare opportunities, state-funded Pre-K or Head Start programs were available at low or no cost but usually implement a lottery system to assign the limited number of available spots.[18] Individual private providers and nonprofits would also provide scholarships or discounts to low-income families.[19] Another option working parents may have benefitted from is employer-sponsored or heavily subsidized childcare options that would have the added bonus of being at the caregiver’s worksite.[20] Additionally, an intricate network of tax-based credits could provide some relief to families. The child and dependent care credit may permit one’s federal income tax to be reduced if they had to pay for childcare while they were working or looking for work.[21] More generally, families may also utilize the child tax credit that provides tax breaks for families claiming a qualifying child.[22]

Despite the existence of some financial assistance opportunities for affording childcare, many of these programs are retroactive and require families to meet specific eligibility standards or have limited capacity and long waitlists. Following the pandemic, there was a concerted federal response to provide immediate relief funding to the childcare industry. For example, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress provided $3.5 billion in emergency funds to states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant.[23] This money was bookmarked for states to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the childcare industry by paying subsidies and ensuring childcare options were available to parents that were frontline workers.[24] A second stimulus package in December 2020 continued attempts to keep the childcare industry afloat with $10 billion in grants to childcare providers.[25] The largest influx of help came in early 2021 with the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, which contained nearly $40 billion in relief for families and the childcare sector more broadly.[26] The combination of these federal relief preventions helped prevent at least 75,000 permanent childcare closures translating into roughly three million spots for families to send their children for care.[27]


Solutions for Long-Term Affordable Childcare

While federal pandemic relief funding went a long way toward stabilizing the childcare industry and subsidizing programs for frontline worker families, these efforts were never meant to be a recurring source of aid that remedied long-standing issues of affordability and unequal access. With federal relief money expiring in 2024[28], it is past time for long-term solutions to be considered and implemented. One large-scale, albeit unlikely, solution is creating a universal federally funded childcare system. There was legislative momentum to create this sort of system in 1971, but President Nixon vetoed the effort over concerns that such a program “undermined the role of women in childrearing.”[29] Unfortunately, similar political values and a general aversion to universal programs would likely stop any implementation of a universal system today.

Barring a universal system, other ideas, such as expanding loan or subsidy programs to pay for childcare services, can work proactively with a more robust network of childcare tax credits that work retroactively to make programs more affordable for families. Even establishing something like the American Rescue Plan’s temporary Advanced Child Tax Credit as a permanent policy could make a difference in a family’s ability to afford care when they need it.[30] With quality childcare being directly related to increased maternal employment and positive child development,[31] it is up to policymakers and advocates to build upon the stabilizing foundation provided by pandemic relief dollars to finally make America’s childcare system into the affordable and accessible model it should be.


[1] Sarah Mazzochi, Comment, A New Twist on an Old Idea: How Year-Round Schooling and Revamped Out-of-School Care Can Improve the Lives of Women in Washington, D.C., 19 VA. J. SOC. POL’Y & L. 109, 118 (2011).

[2]  Id.

[3] See, e.g., Naomi R. Cahn & Linda C. McClain, Gendered Complications of Covid-19: Towards A Feminist Recovery Plan, 22 GEO. J. GENDER & L. 1, 18 (2020).

[4] Id.

[5] Claudia Goldin, Understanding the Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Women, 15 (Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Rsch., Working Paper No. 29974, 2022), https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29974/w29974.pdf.

[6] Id.

[7] See Naomi R. Cahn & Linda C. McClain, Gendered Complications of Covid-19: Towards A Feminist Recovery Plan, 22 GEO. J. GENDER & L. 1, 20 (2020).

[8] See Katherine Lim & Mike Zabek, Women’s Labor Force Exits during COVID-19: Differences by Motherhood, Race, and Ethnicity 4 (Oct. 28, 2022) (unpublished manuscript), https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-2203287/v1.

[9] Id at 1.

[10] Id at 20.

[11] See Stephanie H. Murray, The Pandemic Exposed the Inequality of American Motherhood, (Nov. 28, 2022), https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/11/covid-impact-women/672251/.

[12] See, e.g., Catherine Schur, Note, Conspicuous by Their Absence: How Childcare Can Help Women Make It to the Top, 27 GEO. J. LEGAL ETHICS 859, 859 (2014).

[13] See Naomi R. Cahn & Linda C. McClain, Gendered Complications of Covid-19: Towards A Feminist Recovery Plan, 22 GEO. J. GENDER & L. 1, 14 (2020).

[14] Id at 19.

[15] Id.

[16] Sophie Quinton, Federal Aid is Propping Up Child Care. It Isn’t a Long-Term Fix, PEW (Jan. 12, 2022), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2022/01/12/federal-aid-is-propping-up-child-care-it-isnt-a-long-term-fix.

[17] Child Care Financial Assistance Options, CHILD CARE.GOV, https://childcare.gov/consumer-education/get-help-paying-for-child-care (last visited Mar. 1, 2023).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Child and Dependent Care Credit Information, IRS, https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/individuals/child-and-dependent-care-credit-information (last visited Mar. 1, 2023).

[22] Child Tax Credit, IRS, https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/individuals/child-tax-credit (last visited Mar. 1, 2023).

[23] Naomi R. Cahn & Linda C. McClain, Gendered Complications of Covid-19: Towards A Feminist Recovery Plan, 22 GEO. J. GENDER & L. 1, 27 (2020).

[24] Id.

[25] Id at 28.

[26] Julie Kashen & Rasheed Malik, More Than Three Million Child Care Spots Saved by American Rescue Plan Funding, THE CENTURY FOUNDATION (Mar. 9, 2022), https://tcf.org/content/commentary/three-million-child-care-spots-saved-american-rescue-plan-funding/.

[27] Id.

[28] Quinton, supra note 16.

[29] See Office of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, (Feb. 2019),  https://www.warren.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Universal_Child_Care_Policy_Brief_2019.pdf.

[30] Under the American Rescue Plan of 2021, advance payments of up to half the 2021 Child Tax Credit were sent to eligible taxpayers. See Advanced Child Tax Credit Payments in 2021, IRS, https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/advance-child-tax-credit-payments-in-2021 (last visited Mar. 1, 2023).

[31] See e.g., Catherine Schur, Note, Conspicuous by Their Absence: How Childcare Can Help Women Make It to the Top, 27 GEO. J. LEGAL ETHICS 867 (2014).