Class Inequality and Parenting During the Pandemic
Parenting experiences during COVID-19 differ along class lines.
Posted May 21, 2020
COVID-19 has changed family life dramatically. Schools and daycare centers have closed. Parents have been saddled with the responsibility to care for their children full-time, including having to homeschool their children. These are stressful and challenging times for all parents and children. Parents of distinct socioeconomic classes, however, are facing distinct challenges.
The working class has been pushed to the front lines of the economy.1 They perform “essential” work, such as cleaning and disinfecting workplaces, bagging groceries, and delivering food. Due to their economic disadvantage, working-class parents are forced into an impossible choice: risk exposure to the COVID-19 virus or face the prospect of not being able to put food on their tables. Although schools have shifted the responsibility of instruction to parents, homeschooling may not be an option for these parents who must work outside of the home during the pandemic. This is in sharp contrast to middle-class parents who have the stressful task of having to work and care for their children, but they are at least able to do so within the safety of their homes.2
Job loss due to the pandemic is also likely higher among the working class than among their affluent counterparts. A 2017-2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that over 90% of jobs with earnings at the bottom quartile of the income distribution could not be performed remotely.3 The shutdown of non-essential work likely resulted in higher rates of unemployment for working-class individuals who have those jobs. Facing economic hardship and greater economic uncertainty, working-class parents may not have the mental energy or the patience to adequately deal with the stress that comes from having to parent their children 24-7. It is a well-established fact that economic uncertainty and economic hardship frequently results in harsh parenting and poorer outcomes.4
Working-class parents may also not have the resources at their disposal to adequately care and provide home instruction for their children. For starters, as single parents, many may have to assume all the parenting responsibilities by themselves. Just over 10% of female college graduates have non-marital fertility, compared to 58% of female high school graduates.5 Educational gradient in marriages implies that a significant portion of working-class parents cannot share childcaring responsibilities with a partner. The need for a parenting team may be much more pronounced during a lockdown that forces parents and children to spend time with one another 24-7.
Differential school quality can be another factor amplifying class differences in parenting experiences during COVID-19. U.S. schools are funded with local taxes. Therefore, children living in low-income neighborhoods are more likely than their peers living in more affluent neighborhoods to attend poorer quality schools.6 Perhaps, reflecting these differences, children of low-income parents appear to be enrolled in schools that either provide less online instruction or have not adequately communicated their online instruction programs to their parents.7 As a result, according to a recent Pew Report, nearly 30% of low-income parents report that their children’s school has provided little online instruction, which compares to 18% of middle-class and 13% of upper-class parents.8
Even if schools afforded parents the same level of support for online instruction, low-income parents would be at a disadvantage relative to middle- or high-income parents. Their children may lack access to basic resources, like broadband internet connection.9 Further complicating matters is the fact that working-class parents may have completed fewer years of schools and may not be able to offer their offspring the academic help that they need. Without adequate help, children of working-class parents may be falling behind. In fact, the Pew Report mentioned above shows that 3 in 4 low-income parents expressed concern over their children falling behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, in contrast to less than half of middle- or upper-class parents.8
Overall, COVID-19 has exposed working-class parents to the stress of having to care for their children with fewer resources and support. Their children may be falling behind as a result of little parental supervision and adequate resources to learn. A long-term consequence of this pandemic may therefore be that it will exacerbate class differentials in children's educational attainment. Schools and the Department of Education should design a curriculum that addresses some of the concerns of working-class parents. Otherwise, schools, which are supposed to be the Great Equalizer, may become the very social mechanisms exacerbating class inequality and contribute to the creation of a pandemic caste system.
Scheiber, N., Schwartz, N., & Hsu, T. (2020, March 30). ‘White-Collar Quarantine’ Over Virus Spotlights Class Divide. New York Times.
Featherstone, L. (2020, May 7). The Pandemic is a Family Emergency. The New Republic.
Gould, E. & Shielroz, H. (2020, March 19). Not Everyone Can Work from Home. Working Economics Blog. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
Schneider, W., J. Waldfogel, & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2017). The Great Recession and risk for child abuse and neglect. Child Youth Services Review 72: 71–81.
Lundberg, S., Pollack, R. Stearns, J. Family Inequality: Diverging Patterns in Marriage, Cohabitation, and Childbearing. Journal of Economic Perspectives 30(2): 79-102.
Adamson, F. & Darling-Hammond, L. 2012. Funding Disparities and the Inequitable Distribution of Teachers: Evaluating Sources and Solutions. Education Policy Analysis Archives 20: 37.
Coronavirus: Better off children study more than poorer pupils. (2020, May 18). BBC News.
Horowitz, J. (2020, April 15). Lower-income parents most concerned about their children falling behind amid COVID-19 school closures. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
Jeffords, S. (2020, April 6). E-learning begins for Ontario students amid COVID-19 school closures. City News.