As of 9 April 2020, more than 90% of the learners enrolled in pre-primary, primary, lower-secondary, and upper-secondary levels of education were affected by school closures across the world (UNESCO 2020). The resulting sudden increase in childcare responsibilities represented a massive shock to their parents’ time allocation. The way parents respond to this shock can have significant implications for children’s development, household income, gender equality, family stability, and general wellbeing. A recent VoxEU column by Moroni et al. (2020) discusses the effects of a stressful home environment, exacerbated by COVID-19, on children’s socio-emotional skills. In order to support families through this crisis with sensible policies, we need to know what impact such closures have on the time that parents allocate to childcare, paid work, housework, and other activities such as leisure or sleep.
In this column, we ask what the impact of day care closures are on time use for parents of pre-school-aged children. Burgess and Sivertsen (2020) provide an excellent discussion of learning impacts for school-aged children; we decided to focus on younger children because they demand substantially more attention and need to be supervised almost constantly. As such, day care closures represent an arguably larger shock to parental time allocations than do school closures. Furthermore, the literature tells us that pre-school education may offer the greatest potential for addressing long-term outcomes and social inequality (e.g. Cornelissen et al. 2018, Havnes and Mogstad 2015), such that parents of pre-schoolers may feel pressure to deliver a similar educational environment at home.
Time diary data
Due to the lack of data on the unfolding situation, measuring impacts on parental time allocations is difficult. Therefore, we look at past diary data (from the 2012-13 wave of the German time-use survey) and compare the time allocations of parents whose youngest child (under six years old) does not go to a day care centre to the time allocations of parents whose youngest child does go to a day care centre. Note that this is the exact reverse of the comparison that we make in a current working paper with the same data, in which we want to know the impact of usage versus non-usage (see Jessen et al. 2020 for our working draft).
In some ways, this comparison mirrors the COVID-19 closures: in the period covered by the data, many parents not sending their child to a day care centre were refraining due to the pervasive shortages of slots rather than a choice to keep them at home. In other ways, the comparison is quite different: the current closures are temporary and coupled with restrictions on social contact and travel. We take such differences into account in our discussion of the results, and we think the comparison sheds light on an important issue that we currently know very little about.
The diary data records main and (optional) secondary activities of adult household members in ten-minute slots over three days. In addition to recording activities, respondents can indicate for each time slot whether it was spent with a child under ten years of age. In this column, we specifically focus on time use recorded on weekdays, when the closures of day care centres would be felt more directly by families. We investigate time-use patterns separately for mothers and fathers as, despite some convergence over time, mothers are still commonly the main provider of child care in two-parent households (Gimenez-Nadal and Sevilla 2012).1
Child care differences
In Figure 1, we plot the average amount of time spent in the presence of a child and on activities with a child across the day for mothers and fathers depending on whether their child is enrolled in day care.2 As one would expect, the first observation is that non-usage of day care increases the amount of time that parents spent with their children, and the effect is much greater for mothers (+134 minutes, or +36%) than for fathers (+19 mins, or +9%). The majority of this increase comes during usual day care hours, which in Germany is 8am to 4pm. Parents also spend a little more time with their children in the evenings, and a little less in the mornings, perhaps reflecting a later schedule overall.
But not all time spent with children is time spent doing activities with them. It is apparent that mothers increase their activities with children by an amount that is less than proportional to the increase in time spent with their child (+63 mins, or +29%). Further, what these charts do not show is that the increase in activities by mothers come from child care as a secondary activity (+35%) rather than as a main activity (+25%). For fathers, there is even a small decrease in time spent on child care activities (-5 mins, or -5%), despite the increased time spent with the child. Overall, parents without day care spend significantly more time with their children, but this additional time is characterised by less time spent on child care activities, especially as the parent’s main activity.
The reduced parental interactions during additional time with the child may have adverse effects on child development. These effects may be greater still under the COVID-19 closures as parents attempt to multi-task paid work with child care, or make use of alternative care arrangements. Research shows that disadvantaged children benefit the most from attending day care, which may partly reflect the learning environment at day care centres but also, as we show in our paper, a greater impact on parents’ child care activities. Policy responses that aim to support parents and children in learning may therefore consider targeting disadvantaged children in particular.
Figure 1 Child care
Differences in paid work and housework
In Figure 2, we see that mothers without day care spend less time on paid work (-56 minutes) and more time on housework (+32 mins). There is a particularly large increase in time spent doing housework while spending time with a child (+43 mins). The drop in paid work is consistent with research showing that the expansion of day care in Germany increased employment of mothers (e.g. Müller and Wrohlich 2020). Instead of doing paid work, mothers without day care are multi-tasking housework and child care. The increase in housework may partly reflect the extra cooking, cleaning, and so on that is required when a child spends more time at home. For fathers, there is little difference in either paid work or housework, but there is an increase in housework while a child is at home, suggesting a little multi-tasking by fathers without day care, too.
One might expect the paid work effects to be slightly less pronounced for the recent closures. Mothers will aim to keep their jobs during temporary closures by various means: multi-tasking paid work and child care, working in the evenings, or getting their spouse to do an equal share. Nevertheless, the additional child care responsibilities are likely to fall more heavily on women since day care appears to make little difference for fathers under usual circumstances. These results relate to an emerging literature on the gender dimension of the crisis (Alon et al. 2020, Koebe et al. 2020). Many mothers will likely have to reduce their hours worked which, depending on the arrangement, will impact their earnings and household income. Such effects will be largest for mothers who cannot work from home (typically already lower earners). Mothers who are able to do paid work in the evenings, or multi-task with child care, will likely have to reduce their leisure time or even sleep (we discuss the impact on these activities in our paper). Finally, in some cases ‘getting the father to help’ may itself prove to be a costly bargaining process. Overall, the findings suggest that the COVID-19 closures will have adverse impacts on household earnings and wellbeing, as well as social and gender equality.3
Figure 2 Non-child care activities
We have shown the impact on parents’ time use of their youngest child not being at day care in a context where non-attendance is often due to lack of available day care places. A major difference to consider in the context of COVID-19 closures is that they are expected to be temporary; in most cases, a temporary loss of child care will not change employment status. Nevertheless, we expect fairly similar effects in many cases: reduced parental activities with children in the additional time; reduced paid work, especially for women; and an otherwise more stressful time allocation (more housework, less leisure). Policy responses should consider the impacts of these changed allocations on child development, gender equality, household income, societal inequality, and family wellbeing.
Alon, T, M Doepke, J Olmstead-Rumsey and M Tertilt (2020), "The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality", mimeo.
Burgess, S and H H Sievertsen (2020), “Schools, Skills, and Learning: The Impact of COVID-19 on Education”, VoxEU.org.
Cornelissen, T, C Dustmann, A Raute and U Schönberg (2018), “Who benefits from universal child care? Estimating marginal returns to early child care attendance”, Journal of Political Economy, 126(6): 2356-2409.
Cosaert, S, A Theloudis and B Verheyden (2020), “Togetherness in the Household”, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) Working Paper Series 1.
Koebe, J, C Samtleben, A Schrenker and A Zucco (2020), “Systemrelevant und dennoch kaum anerkannt: Das Lohn-und Prestigeniveau unverzichtbarer Berufe in Zeiten von Corona”, (No. 28) DIW Berlin, German Institute for Economic Research.
Gimenez-Nadal, J I and A Sevilla (2012), “Trends in time allocation: A cross-country analysis”, European Economic Review, 56(6): 1338-1359.
Havnes, T and M Mogstad (2015), “Is universal child care leveling the playing field?”, Journal of Public Economics, 127: 100-114.
Jessen, J, C K Spiess and S Waights (2020), "The Impact of Center-based Care on Parenting Activities", mimeo.
Moroni, G, C Nicoletti and E Tominey (2020), “Children’s socio-emotional skills and the home environment during the COVID-19 crisis”, VoxEU.org.
Müller, K-U and K Wrohlich (2020), “Does Subsidized Care for Toddlers Increase Maternal Labor Supply? Evidence from a Large-scale Expansion of Early Childcare”, Labour Economics.
UNESCO (2020), Global monitoring of school closures caused by COVID-19 (last retrieved 9 April).
1 For data reasons, we additionally restrict to families with one child under the age of ten but, as we discuss in our paper, we expect the results to generalise in a broad manner to other families.
2 The differences are conditional on dummies for child age (in years), which significantly determines both time spent on child care and attendance at a day-care centre. All plots show average time use at the sample means for child age dummies.
3 While the effects on gender equality are likely to be negative in the short to medium-run, Alon et al. (2020) also discuss opposing forces in the long run. Women may disproportionally benefit from more flexible work arrangements currently being adopted and fathers may also increase their care involvement during this crisis, which could lead to a change in gender-specific norms regarding childrearing.