It’s sinking in: Many schools in the country will likely not fully open as COVID-19 diagnoses continue to break records. Should parents admit defeat and have one parent quit the workforce to provide child care and supervise remote learning? Before making this decision, consider the longer-term costs of taking a break from work.
Taking a career break means losing more than just salary. According to a calculator from the Center For American Progress, a 30-year old parent earning $50,000 a year taking just one year off loses over $156,000 in lifetime pay. The parent is behind $30,000 in retirement benefits; $49,000 in wage growth; and $44,000 in lost wages. That parent loses retirement plan contributions, Social Security credits, insurance for disability, and less quantifiable, status and momentum in the labor market. The losses mount up if it takes months or years to find a job and re-enter the workforce.
Consistently steady employment leads to the highest wages; women are more likely to have unsteady work histories mainly because of child care. Even a woman who starts her own consultancy or home-based business feels this pinch: Periods of self-employment substantially hurt women’s, but not men’s, lifetime earnings. A recent Fed study shows people with periods of non-employment suffer large and long-term earnings losses of up to 40% compared to people who worked continually.
The cost of caring for children — women spend about twice as much time on it as men — shows up in women’s lower average earnings. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median weekly earnings for fathers is $1,146; for mothers it is $809 per week. The average man earns a lifetime income of $2.4 million, while the average woman will earn $1.8 million. There are many reasons for this, but one is that women generally work fewer hours. Today’s male retirees worked approximately 70,000 hours per lifetime; female retirees just 50,000 hours — the equivalent of about a ten-year difference.
So quitting — or even dialing back on hours — is obviously enormously expensive. When total costs are taken into account, it’s even more expensive than hiring babysitters or tutors. Before taking a leave of absence, parents should consider every option, including buying or trading home-schooling resources. Brown University economist Emily Oster has good tips for home-based DYI classroom and parent co-ops, etc.
If you still think quitting is the best option for you, ask yourself a few questions first:
- Will the cost of our necessities — housing, debt payments, clothing and food — make up more than 50% of my household’s net income after I quit? If yes, don’t quit.
- Will I have at least 11 times my salary at retirement? (If you make $50,000 a year, you will need over $500,000, adjusted for inflation, by the time you are 65.) If not, don’t quit.
- What is the re-employment rate for people in my field? If even in good times it takes more than several months to find a job in your field, don’t quit.
Individual families have individual decisions to make. But quitting work to home school is more expensive than you might think. It would be much, much better if we could pool our national resources to open schools safely. With summer ending soon, it should be a top item in the next round of government spending. Because schools do a lot more than teach. They provide one or two meals a day during the school year. They offer after-school programs, dental clinics and more. And the free child care they offer is what unleashes the productive forces of parents.
Teresa Ghilarducci is the Schwartz Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research. She’s the co-author of “Rescuing Retirement” and a member of the board of directors of the Economic Policy Institute.