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Affordable, high-quality child care is good for gender equality, good for parents’ household budgets and stress levels, and good for the economy. Any investment in care would produce 2.7 times as many jobs as an equivalent investment in construction, according to the Women’s Budget Group, an independent think tank. Nurseries, day-care centers, and kindergartens have been badly hit by pandemic closures, but so have primary and secondary schools, which we should also count as child care. These are not just sites for learning, or places where children go to make friends and develop social skills. Schools are also what allow parents to go to work, earn wages, generate tax income, and contribute to economic growth.
British schools are currently only partially reopened, with considerable variations nationwide. (The situation in the United States is the same.) That has left millions of parents desperately juggling paid work and child care—and not just watching over their kids, but trying to replace a formal education. Yet full school reopening in Britain will have to wait until the autumn, if not beyond, while nonessential shops have already been allowed to open their doors, and restaurants, museums, and hair salons will follow on July 4.
School closures have widened inequalities, in a turbo version of the “summer-holiday effect,” whereby pupils from poor families fall behind their wealthier peers. The children of a generation have lost months of learning, harming their future prospects, as well as those of their country, which highly prizes an educated workforce, and where the annual wage difference between university graduates and nongraduates is an average of £10,000. The failure to see schools as vital infrastructure has contributed to this. In Slate, Rebecca Onion invoked the idea of an “exposure budget” to manage the response to the coronavirus, choosing which risks to take. Applied across society, Onion argued, we could decide to spend all our exposure budget on opening schools and nurseries, if we accepted that it would mean other closures and limitations. Unfortunately, policy makers have “long been accustomed to papering over shortfalls in policy with huge sacrifices of parents’ and children’s well-being,” she wrote.
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Hundreds of thousands of workers in Britain alone have seen their future prospects directly harmed by the lack of available child care during this crisis. One female friend of mine, who wasn’t eligible to be put on the government’s furlough program, asked instead for paid leave to care for her children, conceding that she could not manage her job and two small children. Her request was refused, and she was told to work flexibly instead.
Parents such as her are worried that they will be the obvious casualties when government support aimed at preventing job losses is gradually withdrawn, beginning in August. Although many men will be affected, this is a feminist issue: Women in Britain are more likely to be in part-time employment, and are more likely to be the lower earner in straight couples, meaning their job is more likely to be “sacrificed” if one parent needs to pick up the slack at home. Among single parents, nine out of 10 are women.