Closing The Gap

51.7 million parents have lost income during the coronavirus pandemic—and experts say it may be especially hard for them to head back to work


While early unemployment figures shows the recent economic downturn has disproportionately impacted women and minorities in the U.S., new data reveals that the coronavirus pandemic has hit parents especially hard. And experts say it's going to be especially challenging for these households to return to work. 

About 51.7 million Americans who live in households with children under the age of 18 say that either they or someone in their home experienced a loss of employment income since President Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency on March 13, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey

And the latest Census survey shows that 40 million adults with kids in the house expect they or another member of the household will continue to lose, or start to lose, income in the next four months. This isn't surprising, considering that experts predict Americans with children will face the some of the biggest hurdles as companies require employees to head back to the office. 

"Even as they attempt to go back [to work], they don't have any way of rejoining the labor force because, in fact, they're still caring for children at home," Diane Swonk, chief economist with Grant Thornton, tells CNBC Make It. 

About 60% of parents in the U.S. have had no outside help caring for their children during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent survey from Boston Consulting Group

"I look at the struggles that parents are going through, and it's crazy," Swonk says. "Finding care in a socially distant world is even more difficult," she says, noting that while many child-care providers shut down or have limited capacity, for many parents, it's even harder than usual because many parents are also not able to rely on grandparents as back-up care. 

Child care is scarce as centers struggle to reopen at full capacity 

About half of child-care providers nationwide opted to close temporarily when the pandemic hit their businesses, according to a survey of 5,000 providers nationwide conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Another 17% closed to all but the children of essential workers, forcing many parents to juggle working from home while managing child care at the same time. 

The Center for American Progress estimates that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. could lose up to 4.5 million child-care slots if child-care providers can't weather the shutdown. 

Yet even as more states loosen stay-at-home restrictions, many day-care providers may not open their doors right away or at full capacity. Several states have allowed businesses to reopen before child-care providers come back online, while many others are imposing strict capacity and operating rules that are creating a financial burden for providers.  

Christina Nelson, with a child, in her home-based day care in Vermont.

"This isn't a light switch that we're going to be turning back on again — there's a real runway needed and some real thought that needs to be put into how we effectively open up child care again," says Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America.

Christina Nelson, owner of Mountain View Child Care in North Troy, Vermont, has been closed since mid-March, but plans to reopen June 1 with just two children. Before the pandemic, her typical class had 10 to 12 kids. 

But reopening means that she needs supplies, something that's proving to be a major challenge to source right now. "I ordered supplies on April 23, and I've still not received gloves and sanitizer and masks and things like that. I have to have enough in to handle all my kids every day," Nelson says. So instead, she's forced to spend every other day driving an hour to the nearest Walmart to hunt for supplies, as well as checking in at three to four other stores to build up a stockpile. 

"If I had all the kids in here, I could probably get through a week and a half with the supplies I have. With two kids starting, I can probably get through most of a month," Nelson says. 

Struggle to return to work will linger 

With child-care providers like Nelson opening up slowly, Swonk doesn't expect the high rates of unemployment among parents to come down drastically anytime soon. "The loss of child care and real fear of returning to a job that is at a high risk of infection are significant hurdles to reemployment," Swonk says. 

In fact, businesses say they've experienced "challenges in bringing employees back to work, including workers' health concerns, limited access to child care, and generous unemployment insurance benefits," Federal Reserve said Wednesday in its periodic summary of the national economy.

And some parents may not be able to return to the job they had, Swonk says. Close to 80% of employees considered their job losses over the past few months temporary. But that's based on a survey of employees, not employers. And if businesses can't withstand the effects of the shutdown, they may be forced to close and file for bankruptcy.  In fact, several major retailers, such as J. CrewJ.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, have already filed for bankruptcy. When that happens, many of those perceived temporary job losses become permanent layoffs. 

"It's now much more complicated than we once thought," Swonk says. 

Don't miss more in this series: 

Kids can't be an 'afterthought': Some states are reopening without lifting child-care restrictions

Many child-care facilities aren't accepting kids, but for some parents, the bills keep coming

Democrats earmark $7 billion for child care in newest relief package—but it won't be enough to stabilize the system for long

Affordable child care is increasingly difficult to find in the U.S.—coronavirus could make it harder

U.S. parents lost $35 billion by staying home with their kids—the coronavirus pandemic could make it worse

Here's how child-care facilities could reopen safely
Here's how child-care facilities could reopen safely