Sitting on the couch playing with her giggling 18-month-old son, Kurendia Massey received the call no one wants to get. They’re letting you go, the recruiter from Massey’s temp agency informed her, just hours after she’d finished an eight-hour shift pulling inventory in a warehouse. The news left Massey, a single mother in Smyrna, Georgia, scrambling to find another job to provide for herself and her two young children.
Two weeks before Massey received that call, she says she’d taken a week off to care for her son who hadn’t been feeling well, a decision she feels cost her the job. “With the pandemic going on, and even before the pandemic, you have mothers out here doing it by themselves,” Massey, 29, tells The Fuller Project. “And for companies not to understand that … is really sad.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, data show, Black mothers were more likely to live in child care deserts, struggle to access affordable child care and have lower workplace flexibility. And although many child care providers have reopened since closing at the beginning of the pandemic, the cost of providing child care has continued to increase and openings are harder to find, putting increased pressure on Black mothers like Massey juggling outsized labor and child care responsibilities.
Massey had had other absences from the warehouse, including, she says, related to her children’s needs. And it wasn’t the first time Massey had lost a job shortly after taking time off due to a sick child. In February, she says, she was let go from another warehouse job after asking for time off to care for her son when he was sick with a fever and ear infection.
Although she found another job a week later, she said the brief gap still caused financial difficulties. “When I was younger, I never saved anything because I thought I’d always have a job,” says Massey. “But you could lose your job in the blink of an eye.”
A year after the Fuller Project first started to report on the impact of the pandemic on Black mothers and child care overall, experts say many of the challenges and disparities laid bare in 2020 are here to stay—until policymakers address the underlying labor and caregiving-related issues.
“The pandemic really revealed with clarity the huge gap in supports for folks across the board,” says Jocelyn Frye, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Black women are at the nexus of the problem, which is on the one hand, they are experiencing job loss because of what has happened during the pandemic. But on the other hand, they cannot afford not to work.”
Black women over 20 have experienced the sharpest drop in employment since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Women’s Law Center, and have an unemployment rate hovering around 7.6 percent as of July, compared to an unemployment rate of 5 percent for women overall. Black women also experienced net job losses in July, while women overall gained jobs. Child care inequities are a huge part of that equation, says Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Black mothers are overrepresented in service industry jobs without basic benefits like paid sick time, paid family leave or schedule stability, according to an IWPR report, which means that child care closures and rising costs hit this group particularly hard, she says.
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“Black women are overrepresented in some of the hardest-hit sectors … that have little to no job flexibility, meaning that if you cannot show up to a physical location you do not earn a living,” says Mason. “And so [the pandemic] had a very definitive impact on whether or not they could juggle in the same way caretaking responsibilities and work.”
For Monet Johnson, a Black mother of two in Greenville, South Carolina, lack of affordable child care in her community has been financially devastating. For roughly 7 months, Johnson, 28, says she was unable to find any openings with local providers that accept the state-based child-care voucher she qualifies for. As the sole breadwinner and single mother, losing out on income for almost a year left her unable to pay her bills. Due to her income level, Johnson lives rent-free in a subsidized housing community, but worries about being able to afford her other needs like food, especially after her younger child’s daycare temporarily shut down because of COVID-19 this summer.
Black women’s ability to find affordable, reliable and flexible child care is particularly important to the economic well-being of Black families, says Frye. Not only do Black mothers take on a larger share of child care compared to white mothers and their male counterparts, according to IWPR, they are also more likely to be breadwinners, which means they’re disproportionately carrying both economic and care responsibilities in their families. “Helping folks who provide care is essential,” says Frye. “It can help to close the wage gap for women generally and Black women in particular. And it’s particularly important for Black women because they are so key to the economic security of their families.”
Even before the pandemic, the median Black family with two children spent roughly 56 percent of their annual income on child care, a bigger share than any other group, according to the Center for American Progress. Since the pandemic began, survey research suggests that the cost of child care has risen and availability has decreased, according to Care.com.
Even for Black mothers with higher incomes like Tomea Knight, a marketing director living in Marlton, New Jersey, finding child care within budget can be difficult. Knight, 45, says that she pays roughly $2,190 a month in child care costs for her two children, ages 5 and 1. “I’m absolutely terrified because I am saving $0 per month,” says Knight, who says her earnings are in the six figures.
Although earlier in the pandemic she kept both children at home, her demanding job quickly made that untenable. “It’s scary to feel like you’re one paycheck away from losing everything,” says Knight. “You have one disaster away from losing your home, your car, things that you need to survive.”
State and federal Investments in lowering the cost of child care for parents would be hugely beneficial for parents like herself, says Knight. Although there are child care subsidy programs in her state, Knight doesn’t qualify because the income eligibility is capped at $53,000 a year for a family of four. “I think there’s ways [for the government] to subsidize child care,” says Knight. “Why did I have to spend as much as I did for preschool? Why is that not provided to us?”
Research from IWPR suggests that universal investments in childcare are likely to disproportionately benefit Black mothers’ long-term savings and help narrow the economic divide between Black women and other groups. These benefits will also help address race-based stigmas, says Frye. “We are quick to try to demonize Black women and make this a conversation about their deficiencies, as opposed to a conversation about our systemic policy failures that really need to be repaired,” she says.
In Georgia, Massey was able to find another job, this time with an employer she believes will be more understanding of her child care responsibilities. Based on her experiences, though, she retains a healthy skepticism. “My children come before everything,” says Massey. “When you go in and you explain what’s going on in your life, [employers say] they understand. But when the time comes, it’s an issue.”