Quarantines, social distancing, and school closings have turned the U.S. into a real-time social experiment: grandparents provide child care for a quarter of children under age 5, as well as many school-aged kids, and are the most vulnerable population in the COVID-19 outbreak. When grandparents can’t provide care, what happens to working families across the nation? We may be about to find out.
Lost in the discussion about how to insulate working- and even middle-class families from the economic impacts of the epidemic is the fact that many parents rely on grandparents to be able to work. As family law attorney Sam Leven told me about his young daughter, “without my parents able to watch her, our current work schedule becomes unmanageable.”
According to U.S. Census data, one in four children under the age of 5 are with grandparents during the day. It is the “pull of both love for their adult child and grandchild and a sense of duty” that leads grandparents to provide child care, reported Zero To Three following a national survey. And it is indeed a labor of love: 80% of grandparents provide child care for free.
That zero-cost price tag is enormously important, and it’s one reason informal types of child care, like leaning on grandparents, is particularly prevalent among lower-income working families and for infants and toddlers. All child care is astoundingly expensive, but infants and toddlers cost an additional premium, averaging $15,000 a year for full-time care (there are 20 million children under 5 in the U.S.; grandparents offer care for nearly 5 million of those, suggesting the immense monetary value of their unpaid labor). Despite the price tag, open slots for these ages are the holy grail of child care. Because of requirements for low adult-to-child ratios and added health and safety measures, many providers don’t even offer infant and toddler classrooms. A study by the Center for American Progress found that in the nine states they examined, 95% of counties could be classified as “infant-toddler child-care deserts.”
While the impact of sidelined grandparents would be most felt by those who rely on full-time grandparent care, there’s no question that grandparents are intimately involved in the daily and weekly rhythms of a huge number of families. Whether it’s taking the kids so parents can have a date night or providing transportation to an after-school program, grandparents are an invaluable piece of the chaotic puzzle called parenthood. A 2015 Pew survey found that around half of grandparents with a grandchild under age 18 provide at least occasional care. Moreover, as more school districts and child care centers begin to close as a result of coronavirus, who is likely to be parents’ first call? You guessed it: Grandma and Grandpa.
All of this stands in stark relief to the warnings conveyed to elderly Americans. Not only does the novel coronavirus have a much higher mortality rate among the elderly, but older individuals have been told by the CDC not to get on airplanes and to generally limit contact. Given both how many grandparents live a plane ride away from their grandchildren, and how exquisitely germy children tend to be, this is a dangerous mix. Consider that the entirety of Italy is currently experiencing “the most severe controls on a Western nation since World War II” due to the spread of COVID-19, as Reuters reports; around 40% of grandparents there provide regular child care.
This revealed fragility should fuel parents to call on their policymakers for a universal child care system and, more immediately, for a child allowance.
What’s to be done? First, parents who rely on grandparent care should start making contingency plans. Kirsten Lockhart, whose mother provides upwards of 20 hours a week of care for Lockhart’s preschool-aged daughter, says her parents just got back from overseas travel. Options Lockhart is considering include going through babysitter and nanny agencies, finding a local college student, or, if absolutely necessary, shifting from full-time to part-time at her work.
This may be a place where community can step up. Stay-at-home parents could offer temporary, affordable help to neighbors. Perhaps “babysitting brigades” of college and high school students can be established, particularly in those areas where schools and colleges have closed. If child care centers or family child care providers happen to have openings, they could offer short-term discounted slots. All hands on deck, as it were.
As a lasting solution, though, this revealed fragility should fuel parents to call on their policymakers for a universal child care system and, more immediately, for a child allowance. Such an allowance, sometimes called a “child benefit,” already exists in many developed nations. For instance, in Canada, parents can get up to a maximum of $6,600 a year, tax-free, for each child under age 6, and $5,600 a year for school-aged children (the exact amounts are tied to factors like income and geography). Implementation need not be complicated: as Matt Bruenig at the People’s Policy Project has pointed out, the federal government could easily begin sending money to families each month for each child dependent.
Having a child allowance in hand would enable parents to absorb the temporary loss of grandparent caregivers — or closure of their school or child care center — without having to drastically change their work situation, risk losing their jobs altogether, or amass debt. (The U.S., remember, has no national paid sick leave policy.) As a permanent step, a child allowance would also bolster parents against the next unexpectedly disruptive storm that appears on the horizon.
Whatever measures are ultimately taken, America needs to start preparing now for the potential loss of significant numbers of grandparents as caregivers. With any luck, such plans will never have to be put into action. But we need our grandparents healthy, which means — for the sake of child, parent, and grandparent alike — we must stand ready to do without them for a little while so we can have them around for a long, long time.
The story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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