Working parents have struggled to balance working from home and taking care of their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those still employed have to juggle being a caretaker and teacher, doing the work they were hired and paid to do and navigating a pandemic that has killed over 137,000 Americans. Recently unemployed parents struggle with financial insecurity on top of the stresses of being a caregiver.
To a degree, this is unavoidable. Schools and many daycares were closed to mitigate the spread of infection, sending children to online learning or homeschool. But there are policy decisions Congress could take to alleviate the burdens being placed on families during the pandemic and afterward.
One way to help parents is to simply give them money. After the CARES Act provided Americans with a stimulus check and expanded unemployment insurance, poverty actually decreased from 10.9% in January and February to 8.6% in April and May, according to a working paper from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago.
Children are an immense financial burden on parents. Entitling them to cash benefits can substantially relieve the economic burden of having kids. Germany’s “Kindergeld” benefit, for instance, improves children’s nutrition and families’ housing situation, according to according to a preliminary discussion paper by Christian Raschke, who is now an economics professor at Sam Houston State University.
Many working parents rely on the public school system to act as a child care institution as well as a place of education. With schools possibly going back to online instruction in the fall, a cash benefit could compensate parents for the additional labor involved in managing children at home.
Beyond financial support, the federal government can also assist new parents by instituting paid family leave. According to a qualitative study by the National Center for Children in Poverty, parents who used New Jersey’s state-level Family Leave Insurance program reported feeling more financially secure and more emotionally connected with their newborn.
A paid family leave program at the national level could help give parents needed financial security and time with their children.
Congress could also help parents with their children’s health care costs by expanding Medicare to children below the age of 18. Kids are cheap to insure relative to adults. According to a National Health Expenditure fact sheet, children accounted for around 24% of the population but only about 11% of personal health care expenses in 2014.
Especially as the coronavirus surges across the state, it’s important to make sure that families are not bankrupted by medical treatment.
Some progressives may argue instead for expanding Medicare to Americans of all ages. But a Medicare for Kids program would require a less fundamental restructuring of the American health care system while still being a significant step toward a universal system if lawmakers so choose.
Once the pandemic subsides, schools and daycares will begin to reopen. Some daycares never closed, with promisingly low levels of coronavirus infection. However, many working families were never able to afford child care.
According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, the average annual cost of infant care in Georgia is $8,530. The federal government should partner with local providers to make child care services free at point of service. Families who prefer to provide child care at home should be able to forego their spot in exchange for a home child care benefit.
While states could certainly implement some of these policies on their own, their budgets face significant stress due to the coronavirus-induced recession. The federal government is better able to absorb the cost of new social welfare programs, and to raise taxes to offset deficits. Congress could finance a suite of child welfare programs by raising marginal income taxes on the highest earners.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, working families have struggled to balance financial solvency and the needs of parents and children. The federal government can and should provide relief that will build prosperous families in the short term and beyond.