Who can "buy time" during a pandemic?

Published by Imaginable Futures


With the number of new COVID-19 cases vaulting over 200,000 per day, we can anticipate that child care and schooling options will become even more limited as states move to halt the spread of the coronavirus.


Throughout most of 2020, many families have had to blur the lines between caregiving and work. For many families with lower incomes, adult-child interactions have been fraying from the added and exacerbated challenges of having to balance work, education and survival all at once.


Half of Americans with the lowest incomes account for approximately 80% of jobs gone. According to economist Raj Chetty, the bottom quarter of wage earners have lost almost 11 million jobs since April—three times the number lost by the top quarter.


The ramifications are staggering, especially when we consider that parental wealth and socioeconomic status are the strongest indicators of children’s educational outcomes in the U.S. The vicious cycle worsens. Even pre-COVID, the prospects were grim for children from low-income households: Only two out of every 25 children reached the top rungs of the economic ladder.


In order to strengthen family success and remove obstacles to intergenerational mobility, we must make sure to deal with “time poverty”—the phenomenon of having too many things to do, and not enough time to complete them. For the millions of recently laid-off and furloughed workers seeking new work through more training, the cost of education extends far beyond the cost of foregone wages, or tuition and fees. More education and training tugs on people’s most precious and limited resource of all: time.


Adults, especially parents and caregivers, are inundated with responsibilities as they struggle to stay afloat. Without recourse to school and child care, women have borne the brunt of caregiving responsibilities. C. Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a partner of Imaginable Futures, names the mass exodus of women from the workforce a “shecession.”


Layer on the additional responsibility of schooling, and you have 3.8 million student parents currently enrolled in degree programs who find it challenging to take on the added time commitment of pursuing postsecondary education, along with the tens of millions of others who have some credit but no degree. The struggles only compound when we consider that the median age of student parents is 32. They mostly are women (70%) and people of color (56%), also grappling personally with the racial and social unrest in our country.


Without “enough hours in a day,” as one student parent described it, mothers admit to feeling torn, unable to focus on school. One woman from our Imaginable Futures partner Ascend described her pattern of starting and then inevitably failing to persist because: “It was a struggle—just the hours of having to sit in the classroom, when I had little kids at home. I was still working full-time. And years later [when I tried again], it was the same. I kind of fell back again.”


Another parent shared the lengths she would go to in order to squeeze in education into her week: “I lived across the street from campus, so I would go home to bring [my baby] the bottles that I had pumped in between classes. I would stack my classes to be all in one day, so that way, I could work the other days. Sometimes I would be on campus from 8:00 am till 10:00 pm at night. I would just have classes all day long.”


Universities weren’t originally designed to serve student parents, but there’s no reason they can’t evolve to be more learner-centered. According to a study from IWPR on the time demands of mothers, student parents who used a campus child care center “had an on-time graduation rate that was more than three times higher than those who did not use campus child care.” Rather than leave learners to force-fit nonlinear realities into a rigidly linear system, schools can make it easier for people to return, retrain and navigate just-in-time learning pathways that are directly aligned to workforce needs.


At the same time, employers are equally challenged when it comes to solving this first-order constraint of time. Time is the biggest barrier—the biggest point of friction when it comes to companies allocating time for learning new skills. Many simply don’t carve out time for reskilling or upskilling. Instead, they expect employees to layer learning on top of the myriad other responsibilities they are juggling—and outside of or in addition to work. But how exactly are people supposed to find time for rapid reskilling in their already limited time?


It is imperative that employers embed more learning opportunities that are integrated into workdays—learning experiences that are hands-on, work-based, contextualized in the real-world and tied to clear performance outcomes. Time during the workday for integrated earning and learning is crucial for low-wage workers seeking to advance.


We must—and can—do better. Learning providers and employers must engage with student parents and working parents differently than before. Millions of people have lost and are losing their jobs, and their focus is on survival and moving as quickly as possible toward something sustainable, and hopefully, better. Many working parents, who make up roughly half of our workforce, have lost their child care, and they do not have “time off” to develop new skills on their own.


As we move into 2021 still grappling with an unrelenting virus, companies and educators must develop new strategies to salvage working learners’ most precious resource of time. Solving for intergenerational poverty means tackling time poverty.

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