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Pandemic pushes mothers of young children out of the labor force

Many mothers of kids under five have left the labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic and not returned

February 2, 2021


Tyler Boesch Data Scientist, Community Development and Engagement
Rob Grunewald Economist, Community Development and Engagement (former)
Ryan Nunn Assistant Vice President, Community Development and Engagement
Vanessa Palmer Data Director, Center for Indian Country Development
Pandemic pushes mothers of young children out of the labor force, key image
Dobrila Vignjevic/Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • Mothers’ early declines in labor force participation have not recovered
  • In contrast, fathers have mostly recovered losses
  • Ninth District mothers left labor force to an unusual extent
Pandemic pushes mothers of young children out of the labor force

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many hardships for families due to disruptions in employment, schooling, and child care. Previous research describes the impact on parents of school-age children—primarily mothers—who altered their work arrangements or left the labor force to take care of their children at home. But the pandemic also affected parents with young children (that is, children under age five) with the burden again falling more on mothers, who have been more likely to leave the labor force because of caregiving responsibilities.

Mothers bear disruptions disproportionately

In April 2020, the pandemic caused fathers and mothers of young children to leave the labor force at relatively high rates—3.4 and 2.9 percentage point declines, respectively, relative to November 2019.1 See Figure 1. However, their subsequent paths diverged sharply. While nearly all fathers returned to the labor force, mothers regained virtually none of their lost ground, remaining 2.8 percentage points below their November 2019 participation rate—an extremely large change by historical standards. To put this loss in perspective, the nearly decade-long decline in labor force participation among 25- to 54-year-olds that followed from the Great Recession was smaller, at 2.5 percentage points from December 2007 to the 2015 post-recession trough. (Except where otherwise specified, our estimates are for the U.S. as a whole. Also, we do not assume that all families include a father and a mother; rather, we examine fathers in the aggregate and mothers in the aggregate. Family structure is relevant to labor force participation but outside the scope of our analysis.)

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The contrast between fathers and mothers is striking. But another notable comparison is that between mothers with young kids and women without children at home. Declines in labor force participation from November 2019 to November 2020 are evident for both groups, though they are substantially larger for parents. One might interpret this difference as caused by the responsibility for child care, over and above the labor market disruption experienced by parents and nonparents alike.

However, nonparents differ in key respects from parents, and we can adjust for some of those differences in our data. When educational attainment and worker age are taken into account in a comparison of women without children and mothers of young children, mothers of young children still experienced a decline in participation (through November 2020) that was nearly 2 percentage points larger than that of women without children.2

Child care and work were unusually hard to balance in 2020

Both school closures and child care issues have placed an added burden on parents. In April 2020, mothers and fathers of young children were, respectively, 1.7 and 1.4 percentage points more likely to report that home and/or family care responsibilities kept them out of the labor force than in November 2019. See Figure 2. However, by November 2020, mothers of young children were 2.2 percentage points more likely than in November 2019 to report that care responsibilities kept them out of the labor force, while fathers had recovered to about the same situation as in November 2019—that is, care responsibilities were not keeping them out of the labor force any more than they had before the pandemic.

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At least in some states and local areas, disruptions in the child care sector likely affected care availability and therefore the ability of parents to remain in the labor force. For example, during spring 2020, about 20 states closed child care providers (with an exception for serving essential workers) for periods ranging from a week to as long as two months. Moreover, according to surveys in April and August 2020, many parents reported challenges finding child care, in part because their child care provider closed or reduced hours.

Child care availability is only part of the story, as family considerations also affect the decision to stay in the labor force—even when child care is available. For example, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, over three-fourths of parents were concerned that returning their children to a child care provider would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19. In addition, families affected by unemployment or reduced hours and subsequent reductions in earnings may find that child care is no longer affordable.

Ninth District mothers left the labor force in droves

Mothers in the Ninth Federal Reserve District who have young children participated in the labor force at much lower rates during September through November 2020 compared with the same period a year earlier.3 Labor force participation among mothers with young children dropped 11.1 percentage points in Minnesota and 7.3 percentage points in the combined region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana compared with 3.7 percentage points over the same period nationally (a somewhat larger decline than observed for November 2019 through November 2020).

Why were these declines so large? One important factor is that pre-pandemic labor force participation rates of Ninth District mothers were substantially higher than rates in the rest of the country. Even after the pandemic lowered mothers’ participation rates in the Ninth District, labor force participation rates among Ninth District mothers were still higher than for their counterparts elsewhere across the nation (see the Appendix figure). The other important factor is the spike in COVID-19 cases in the Upper Midwest during late 2020, which preceded similar spikes throughout the U.S.

For non-college-educated parents, damage is substantial

Not all parents of young children have been affected equally, and those without a four-year college degree have fared particularly poorly during the pandemic. As shown in Figure 3, men in this group (looking across the U.S. and not just in Ninth District states) have experienced larger participation rate declines throughout the pandemic than their counterparts with four-year degrees. Non-college-educated mothers of children under five may have experienced a smaller participation decline than their college-educated counterparts through April 2020—the difference is not statistically significant—but since then have continued to see declining participation. By November 2020, their labor force participation stood at 3.6 percentage points lower than the year prior—well below the cumulative 2.3 percentage-point drop experienced by their college-educated peers.

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Economic recovery depends on child care availability

We often discuss the child care sector and early childhood development in terms of their long-run benefits for children and therefore the long-run health of our society and economy. But child care also matters in the here and now, as has been made painfully clear by the pandemic recession. While fathers of young children have regained most of their labor-force-participation losses, mothers have not, and many remain on the labor market sidelines. Child care availability and parental concerns over child care safety and affordability during the pandemic will affect how quickly labor markets and the economy recover.

The authors are grateful to Katherine Lim and David Ratner for insightful feedback on an earlier draft.


1 Throughout, we examine labor force participation rates, which include individuals who are either working, seeking employment, or awaiting a return to a previous job. Our analysis is restricted to individuals from age 25 through 54. Note that, when discussing mothers of young children, we only include those mothers whose eldest child is zero to four years old; this was done to focus exclusively on the challenges associated with the youngest children, rather than those for school-age children.

2 For this calculation, we pool data from September through November of 2019 and 2020, by contrast to figures 1, 2, and 3, which show estimates for individual months. Recognizing that child care needs and provider markets differ for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, in separate analysis we also examined labor force participation rates for parents of children zero to two years old (not shown) and found patterns very similar to those for parents of children zero to four years old.

3 To achieve a sufficient sample size for this calculation, we pooled observations from September through November of each year. The Appendix figure uses this pooled sample. (However, the pooled Ninth District samples are still substantially smaller than the single-month samples used in figures 1, 2, and 3.) Estimated changes in national labor force participation are therefore somewhat different than in previous figures—declines in participation for mothers of young children are larger than when examining the November 2019 to November 2020 change.

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Tyler Boesch
Data Scientist, Community Development and Engagement
Tyler Boesch analyzes data, develops visualizations, and creates statistical models to help the Community Development and Engagement team understand issues affecting low- and moderate-income communities. Before joining the Bank, he was a graduate research assistant with the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
Ryan Nunn
Assistant Vice President, Community Development and Engagement
Ryan Nunn is an assistant vice president in the Minneapolis Fed’s Community Development and Engagement Department. Leading the Bank’s applied research function, Ryan works to improve outcomes for low- and moderate-income communities with the help of better evidence and analysis.
Vanessa Palmer
Data Director, Center for Indian Country Development

Vanessa Palmer is the data director for the Minneapolis Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development (CICD), where she leads efforts to collect, harmonize, and sustainably manage research-ready data in support of economic self-determination in Indian Country. In addition, she uses statistical tools and data visualization to support CICD’s applied research work.