This calculator shows the ‘grim math’ of how much leaving the workforce during COVID will cost you

January 5, 2021, 1:00 AM UTC

It’s not just your salary.

A tool from the Center for American Progress (CAP) allows anyone to calculate the total financial toll of leaving the workforce based on loss of salary but also the hit to your retirement savings and Social Security.

The results can be dramatic.

For instance, a 35-year-old woman who makes $100,000 and takes a two-year break from the workforce loses not just $200,000 in salary, but $134,524 in lost wage growth and $111,767 in lost retirement asset benefits for a total loss of $446,291. If she extends that break to five years she stands to lose $1,020,936.

Though the Center for American Progress launched the tool to highlight America’s childcare crisis, it is newly relevant given the number of parents (and particularly women) who have been forced to alter their work schedules or leave the workforce entirely to provide childcare since last spring. A Washington Post poll found that “more than three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers in the United States say they’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs, or quit to tend to their kids.” Indeed, as Michael Madowitz, an economist with the CAP who developed the calculator, notes, we have not seen women’s employment and labor force participation rates this low since 1986. “Whether it’s the push of job loss, the pull of care at home, or both, U.S. policy failures in 2020 risk a lost generation of women’s careers,” writes Madowitz.

Misty L. Heggeness of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and U.S. Census Bureau came to a similar conclusion in a recent paper. “Overall, the pandemic appears to have induced a unique immediate juggling act for working mothers of school-age children,” she wrote. She found that “mothers with jobs in early closure states were 68.8% more likely than mothers in late closure states to have a job but not be working as a result of early shutdowns.” (She found no effect on working fathers or working women without school-age children.)

The fact that some public schools have still not reopened to in-person learning has been particularly galling to many experts, given that—especially among younger age children—schools have not been shown to be spreading the virus and that it removes an essential support for American families. As Heggeness puts it, “Childcare and schooling are not just essential for the human capital development of our youth; they are also critical policy interventions for the full employment of parents, especially mothers.”

And once again, any strain that white mothers may feel falls even harder on Black and Latinx mothers. As CAP outlines: “Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women especially—all of whom face intersecting oppressions—are also feeling the multiple effects of being more likely to have lost their jobs, being on the front lines as essential workers, and solving their childcare challenges on their own.”

For mothers—who already tend to earn less and live longer than their partners—Madowitz concludes: “The opportunity costs of taking time off were already striking for parents before the childcare and school-access problem got even worse with COVID, but the grim math is still the same.”

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