The Real Cost of Childcare During a Global Pandemic

Beyond the shortness of breath, inability to taste, and risk of death experienced by those who contract Covid-19, there are tremendous hidden costs that impact the day to day lived experience of people around the world. While some of the costs of the novel Coronavirus are readily evaluated by traditional economic measures of success—such as GDP and unemployment—others are more difficult to capture. Communities have come together in extraordinary ways to support each other. From bike meal delivery services, to home-sewn masks, people have been taking action to help their friends, family, and neighbors in ways that have a tremendous impact but are not counted by GDP, unemployment, or any other measure of economic success.

Children play in front of a building. Access to outside space has been difficult during quarantines.

According to UNESCO, more than 60% of the global school-aged population has been sent home to learn remotely and/or with the support of their parents or guardians in an effort to contain exposure to Covid-19. The unmeasured cost of at-home childcare is most likely astronomical, impacting the ability of parents and guardians to complete their work, take time for themselves, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. While the impact on productivity at work may be taken into account by traditional economic measures, the psychological strain on parents and guardians as well as the potential impact on children is left unmeasured.

“The necessary safety precautions precipitated by this pandemic have limited access to childcare and activities for my kids, which means that my partner and I have had to get creative while entertaining, educating, exercising, and refereeing them 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Looking back on this moment, my kids aren’t going to remember that our economy tanked or that America’s GDP fell; what they’re going to remember are the things that impacted their daily lives: that mom and dad were home all day, every day, sometimes working at the kitchen table or shuffling between more quiet rooms of the house; that they learned multiplication tables and fractions as extra credit, learned how to skateboard and pedal a bike, and that you can make excellent popsicles from frozen fruit; Friday pizza and movie nights from inside the tent we pitched in the living room. These things matter to them, and have softened the blows of isolating ourselves from friends and family, yet they also have taken a tremendous toll on me and my partner. The lack of support, free time and tranquility that school, day care, camps, and playdates generally provide has required of parents to fill those roles and create those conditions for each other simultaneously, all while juggling work schedules and their own mental health. This pandemic has drastically underscored the value and necessity of childcare support.”

Justin Edwards, father of two children and North American Director of the Social Progress Imperative

Childcare is perhaps one of the most undervalued occupations when assessed by traditional economic indicators. While in the United States the costs can be astronomical, the inability to access or afford childcare can have even larger economic ramifications, not only for the parent’s earning capacity but also for the child’s development. According to the Center for American Progress, staff at childcare centers are often underpaid and experience high turnover rates, despite the prohibitive overhead cost of childcare for many families.

Other nations do a better job of ensuring adequate care for their young. According to UNICEF, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal boast some of the most robust family-friendly policies, including paid family leave and universal childcare. However, childcare success is not always measured by GDP, nor is general societal success. On the 2019 global Social Progress Index Estonia scored 83.98 points overall with a GDP of $30,991 while the United States scored 83.62 points with a GDP of $55,681.  This is a stark reminder that income is not destiny.

Children collaborate on laptop computers. Access to technology has been critical for youth education while social distancing procedures are in place.

As Covid-19 exacerbates existing inequalities and highlights the flaws of traditional economic measures (for instance the stock market rose despite increasing quarantine measures and spiking Coronavirus cases) it is important to remember that our live are a confluence of a multitude of factors, many of which are noneconomic. The treehouse that a furloughed parent built for their children while they were quarantined is not measured by GDP and neither are the 10 hours a day that other parents spend answering the “why” questions that are posed by their children: “why is the sky blue?,” “why does our dog bark?,” “why are you making me eat vegetables?”

Lived experience captures more than our economic assets or a country’s GDP. Lived experience includes Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity which the Social Progress Index framework seeks to capture using validated outcome-based indicators. It includes the component of Access to Basic Knowledge which is comprised of five indicators which seek to gauge childcare and education programs. Take our examples from earlier, in 2019 Estonia ranked 22nd while the US ranked 45th on the component of Access to Basic Knowledge. Care and education for children matter, and their import has only been heightened by the Coronavirus pandemic. Parents and guardians around the world—rich or poor—are struggling to take care of their children, in the same way that all countries are struggling to build inclusive societies. Yet, the Social Progress Index shows us that we can go beyond GDP and other traditional economic measures, that we can learn from each other, and that we can build back better in response to unprecedented crises such as Covid-19.

For resources on Covid-19 visit:

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