Parenting Through the Pandemic: Who's Working, Who's Caring for the Kids, and What Policies Might Help


Apr 8, 2020

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda checks in to a council meeting by phone due to the council's temporary work from home policy during the COVID-19 outbreak in Seattle, Washington, March 23, 2020, photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda checks in to a council meeting from home during the COVID-19 outbreak, Washington, March 23, 2020

Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

“It will all work out.” How often have parents heard this when describing the work, childcare, and homework duties that structure our everyday lives? Today, many parents are not quite so sure. COVID-19 has upended most family routines, simple or not. As of April 6, 2020, 46 states have implemented system-wide school closures lasting multiple weeks or months. Many parents with school-age children are now faced with a new balancing act that consists of work, childcare, and educational instruction and oversight—and in the worst moments, all of these at once. Others are out of work completely or have had work hours cut. Their sudden full-time childcare and teaching duties may be accompanied by anxiety as to how they will pay for May's rent or even tomorrow's dinner.

To help inform policy decisions that could help working parents affected by COVID-19, we examined the U.S. Department of Labor's Current Population Survey (CPS) as well as the 2020 “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” or the “CARES Act” and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The CPS data gave us insight into how many households have children at home, what kinds of childcare they might have access to, and what challenges they may be facing, based on parents' occupation and employment status (employed or out of work). To see how we arrived at these numbers using the CPS data, you can find our STATA code at GitHub. Our review of the CARES Act shows us what aid working parents might expect and what kinds of aid might be considered by policymakers going forward.

How Many Parents Are Working, and What Does the COVID-19 Landscape of Childcare Look Like?

Not all children present the same needs in terms of care—an infant is different from a teenager—but for the purpose of understanding the scope of the number of workers who may need to look after children as a result of stay-at-home policies, we counted the number of families with children age 14 years or younger. This represents children who require more supervised care. Figure 1 shows that about one in four American households has at least one child age 14 years or younger at home. Many of these 32.5 million households have “in-home care” options: an older sibling, a non-working spouse, or a co-resident non-working adult relative like a grandparent. All of these people and others might be ready and even eager to make and serve meals, build with blocks, and help with mathematics assignments.

Many families do not have an in-home care option. Single parents are one particularly vulnerable population.

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But many families do not have this in-home option. Single parents are one particularly vulnerable population. As we show in Figure 1, 5.9 percent of households in the United States are single-parent households with young children, and about half of those single-parent households have no in-home care (2.9 percent).

In total, the CPS data identifies 26 million workers who have children 14 or younger but do not have in-home care options: 3.75 million single parents, 22.1 million individuals in dual-earning couples, and a half a million grandparents.

Figure 1: Percent of Households by Presence of Children 14 or Under and Parental Status

Category Value
Households without young children 75.0%
Two-parent households with non-working adult (spouse, relative, etc.) or older child 9.1%
Two-parent households with no in-home care options (dual earners) 8.5%
Single parent with non-working adult or older child 2.7%
Single parent with no in-home care options (working single parent) 2.9%
Grandparent households with non-working adult or older child 1.6%
Grandparent households with no in-home care options (working grandparent[s]) 0.3%

Source: Current Population Survey, Basic Monthly, January 2020.

It is impossible to determine from this data how they are getting childcare, if at all. Some of these households may have informal care arrangements through extended family who they do not live with; this option may no longer be available to them, however, because of shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and social distancing guidelines. In many states, childcare centers are considered essential businesses, but in some places, they are only intended for use by essential workers. In some localities, schools and churches are working to provide childcare—but again, this service may only be available for workers deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic.

While we can't tell right now which workers have access to childcare, the data sheds light on the challenges likely faced by these 26 million parents and grandparents based on their occupation and employment status.

What Challenges Might Certain Groups of Parents Be Facing?

Out-of-Work Parents

The social distancing requirements necessary to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus include the mandated closures or reduction in services in restaurants, personal services, stores, and courthouses. According to the CPS, as many as 4.8 million workers with children and no in-home care options are employed in these occupations[1] alone and may soon be, or already are, out of work or facing reduced hours. Of course, those closures are just one layer of the economic consequences of the pandemic. There are likely many more parents out of work.

High-Demand Parents

Conversely, there are some workers who will very likely see significant increases in their hours of work. This is particularly true for health care workers. These workers will likely face serious challenges in arranging sufficient care for their children so that they may continue to work, or face difficult decisions in finding safe care, given the risk that they themselves face. According to the CPS, as many as 3.2 million health care workers are parents without in-home care options, or about 42 percent of all workers in the health occupations.[2] And again, these are just workers who are on the front line of the health response to the pandemic, but likely other workers—such as public safety officers, grocery staff, warehouse workers—are facing increased hours and peril as well.

Telework Parents

It is not clear how many parents fall into this third group—workers who can work from home but whose children are also in the house demanding full-time attention. This varies by occupation, as well as by employer policies, which the dataset does not reveal. It is also unclear if parents in this group can adjust their hours “downward” to meet those childcare needs, or if taking on fewer hours with lower pay would be sufficient for them to make ends meet.

What Key Policies Could Assist Working and Out-of-Work Parents Going Forward?

Both the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act—legislation passed by Congress to address effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—include assistance and support to try and help Americans get through these unprecedented times. But there is still a large number of questions unanswered for working parents, some of whom are now out of work, some who are facing increased hours and perilous conditions, and some who are juggling full-time home childcare with full-time telework.

For parents who have lost their job, there are few options. The CARES Act expanded unemployment insurance eligibility to workers affected by COVID-19, but there has been concern both over how difficult it has been to apply, and unanswered questions about how eligibility expansions will be administered.

For parents who have not lost their job, we highlight a few questions that speak to the financial difficulties workers with children may face:

Can businesses apply for loans specifically to maintain the salary of a worker (a teleworking caregiver) who needs much more paid time off for caregiving?

Yes, in certain cases. Particularly, the CARES Act established (PDF) the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to provide loans for small businesses that can be used for employee salaries, paid vacation, parental, family, medical or sick leave.

What options are available to parents who have to reduce hours in order to care for children?

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes an expansion of paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for many workers, including for parents home with their child because the child's school or place of care is closed.

In addition, the CARES Act's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program expanded unemployment benefit eligibility (PDF) so that many workers who are unavailable or unable to work due to COVID-19—including because a child in the worker's household is unable to attend school due to a COVID-19-related closure—can apply for unemployment. However, it's not clear whether a reduction in a worker's ability or availability to work qualifies them for PUA, and there hasn't yet been clear guidance from the Department of Labor (DOL) on this point. Given the structure of unemployment insurance (UI)—a program in which each state sets its own tax, benefit, and eligibility rules—it may fall to states to interpret this eligibility criteria unless and until DOL clarifies.

Do the new laws aimed at addressing effects of COVID-19 include funding to provide materials to households to maintain education and help with care, such as internet and computers?

The CARES Act's Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund establishes grants to local educational agencies, which may use the funds for a wide variety of purposes. One allowable use is purchasing educational technology for the agency's students, but agencies aren't required to do so.

Many private childcare centers remain open, though parents are discouraged from taking children there. Many parents face a difficult choice: Should they continue paying tuition for childcare so that their child still has a spot, or even an open center, when social distancing rules are eased?

Localities, states, and the federal government have layers of social distancing advisement that discourage bringing children to those centers, but still include them in essential businesses so that essential workers, like doctors, can maintain access to childcare.

Many private childcare centers are eligible to apply for small business loans established by the CARES Act; those loans may later be eligible for forgiveness. It was intended so that businesses—like childcare centers—will be able to avoid going out of business.

Parents will have to talk to their childcare center to make arrangements. There are no rules or relief for holding places.

Many parents who are teleworking would like to hire a babysitter to come during the day to watch their children while they work. These arrangements would likely be informal, paid in cash, but would increase the risk of disease transmission. If the babysitter gets sick, would he or she be eligible for UI payments? Or would the parent have to pay it as an employer?

The CARES Act extends, through PUA, UI eligibility to workers with limited work histories. Informal work arrangements do not count towards a work history. However, the benefit amount would vary by state, as the level of PUA for which workers are eligible is partially based on state law.

The CARES Act did not extend PPP to household employers, so parents could not apply for a loan to maintain payments to any household workers (babysitters or otherwise).

The public health process and economic recovery will likely be protracted. Despite the stimulus, many threats to household financial security remain. Working parents are just one group, but they illustrate just how complicated and risky this crisis is and how very few of us likely feel it will just “all work out” without the right policies.


  • [1] This represents the total of parents with children under 14 and no in-home care options in the following occupations: arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media; food preparation and serving; legal; personal care and service; sales and related.
  • [2] This represents the total of parents with children under 14 and no in-home care options in the following occupations: health care practitioners and technical; health care support.

Kathryn A. Edwards is an associate economist, Grace Evans is a legislative analyst, and Daniel Schwam is a quantitative analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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