Parents have had enough.
For 18 months, they have struggled, hustled and patched together solutions. They have compromised and sacrificed, as a short-term emergency has stretched and morphed into a wildly unpredictable series of new challenges.
Of course, the surprise is not that our government and social infrastructures are failing parents. Our systems are built for two-parent, one-earner households, despite the fact that it’s been more than 40 years since that was the norm.
What’s new is that they are failing most of our families at the same time.
If we let this moment of crisis pass without addressing the lack of support for families from both the public and private sectors, we will pay the price for decades. You cannot rebuild a strong economy without parents.
While Pennsylvania’s workplaces have largely reopened, families are facing an ongoing emergency: Child care programs are facing staff shortages, and school districts, striving for in-person instruction, are moving ahead without regard to the needs of working parents. In addition, many employers are now racing toward in-person work, with little to no acknowledgment of the ongoing crisis for working families experiencing the disruptions to essential support for their children.
Working mothers’ incomes are more important than ever in keeping families clothed, fed and housed, but this essential income is in jeopardy across the board. An entire generation of a workforce is being pushed out: Women’s labor participation rate has plummeted to levels not seen since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center; 32% of women aged 25-44 said child care was the reason for unemployment in a New York Times survey, and the effect has been even more acute among women of color. Locally, workers are taking notice and choosing employers that better meet their needs: Half of the region’s recent grads relocate to other cities, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.
No end is in sight for many working mothers, many of whom pick up the pieces when care is disrupted: The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that nationwide 94,000 children tested positive for COVID in the week ending Aug. 5 — a substantial increase since the beginning of July. The delta variant is so highly transmissible that it is marching its way through unvaccinated populations, and there is no population in the U.S. today as unvaccinated as kids. The COVID vaccine is as yet unavailable for 50 million Americans under the age of 12. Fewer than a third of 12-to-15-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — a substantially lower proportion than any other eligible age group.
One positive COVID test in a child’s classroom may result in a week or more without child care or in-person schooling. Without meaningful support, working mothers are left with perilous choices: use paid time off (if they have any), scramble for care (sometimes choosing unsafe arrangements in order to maintain employment) or collapse under the strain of it all — jeopardizing the mental and financial wellbeing of our next generation.
This situation is not sustainable, and the consequences will affect us all.
Employers must recognize that this crisis is far from over for workers with children under 12, and adjust their policies to fit an evolving set of needs.
But mostly, elected leaders need to act.
Universal childcare, paid family leave, investments in a diverse and well-trained early education workforce, and universal access to healthcare are the foundations to building a strong economy. These programs support families, and they also support businesses that need qualified and dependable employees. Bills that would address each of those vital priorities have gathered dust for years in the General Assembly, as leaders have opted instead to go to battle over culture wars.
It’s time to force the issue. If we cannot address these problems now, when a dominant segment of the population is struggling, then when? Pennsylvania voters must demand solutions for families, and hold leaders accountable when they don’t deliver.
And if you are a working mom, reach out to the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh to join a growing network of working moms supporting and learning from one another and advocating for all. PJC
Megan Rose is the director of the Center for Women, a project of the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section. Dan Frankel, a Democrat, represents the 23rd district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.