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The Human Cost: This mother is earning $2,000 less per month during the summer so she can take care of her kids — and she’s not alone

When her three school-age kids are on summer break, Isbell, a stylist and cosmetology teacher in Pittsburgh, Pa., is only able to work part time — three days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. With fewer hours and fewer tips from customers, her take-home pay has taken a big hit. 

“I try not to think about it,” Isbell said. The drop in pay nearly led to her being evicted from her apartment last month. After she fell behind on rent, the management company sent her a 15-day eviction notice. 

“Every summer has really been a struggle, honestly,” she said. “Every time the kids get out of school and summer comes, I’m always left trying to figure out what summer is going to look like.” 

Working parents like Isbell say summer is a challenging time. Many have to plan activities and child-care options, come up with new work-and-family schedules and budget for extra expenses. And like Isbell, many are juggling all of this on a reduced income, as they have to take time out to take care of their children. 

‘Every summer has really been a struggle.’

— Mia Isbell, a Pittsburgh-based mother

Women, who are most often the primary caregiver in a household, tend to be the ones who work fewer hours in summer when schools are out. For single mothers like Isbell, that further contributes to the annual financial strain of summer, which is particularly bad timing as they have to face back-to-school season expenses. 

Women’s responsibility for summer child care is a major factor contributing to the gender pay gap, researchers say. A recent paper distributed this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research notes that from 1989 to 2019, women’s weekly earnings declined by 3.3% over the summer months — five times the decline in men’s wages over the same period. 

In the summertime, parents have to find care for six additional hours every weekday, experts said. In a 2019 survey by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, 57% of surveyed families said that a lack of child care meant that at least one parent planned to make a job change that would result in reduced income.

Working mothers and job choice

Working mothers who have younger school-age children — those aged 6 to 12 — are affected the most by the summer months, researchers say. That also had an effect on their career choices: Working mothers tend to choose lower-paid sectors, such as education, which provide flexibility in the summer. 

“If you are an administrative assistant for a school, your job will have a greater alignment with the school calendar,” said Melanie Wasserman, a labor economist with the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-author of the recent NBER paper. “If your children are in that school district, it will have closer proximity to where your kids are going to school.”

Summer breaks have a similar impact on women’s employment as the pandemic when schools closed and parents were forced to juggle work and child care, Wasserman told MarketWatch. 

While school closures during the pandemic received more “warranted attention” from the public on how it impacted female employment relative to men’s employment, summer breaks do not receive the same level of attention or support from employers or the public given how it impacts women’s career trajectories, she added.  

Takeela Washington, a Pittsburgh-based mother of an 8-year-old son.

c/o Takeela Washington

Takeela Washington works part-time as a children’s library-service assistant at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and is a single mom to her 8-year-old son, who is neurodivergent and has anxiety and sensory-processing disorders. On the side, she also operates a small business that curates sensory boxes for children with autism, anxiety, and sensory disorders.

This summer has been “exceptionally challenging,” she said. Washington was able to send her son to a grant-funded camp for just $25 for the entire six weeks because her income falls below the federal poverty line — $19,720 a year for a household of two — but the camp only lasts for six weeks. It also ends early, so her son stays for after-camp care, usually from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. That, in addition to the before-camp care from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., meant the entire six-week run cost Washington $400.

To help out, Washington’s aunt and mom came to the rescue — her mom changed her own 9-to-5 work schedule to 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. For the weeks between the end of camp and beginning of school, the family added Washington’s stepfather to the caretaker pool. When no one is available, Washington takes her son to work. 

‘When I get home every single day, my son is crying for sometimes 30 minutes to an hour because he’s trying to readjust.’

— Takeela Washington, mother of an 8-year-old son

The constant rotation of caretakers and environments was hard on Washington’s son. “When I get home every single day, my son is crying for sometimes 30 minutes to an hour because he’s trying to readjust,“ she said.

Washington worked at a child-care center before the pandemic, where she also registered her son. When schools and businesses shut down in early 2020, her son had just started school. However, the child-care center does not take school-age children, so Washington quit her job to stay home with her son.

Working around her schedule to cater to her son’s needs has always been a priority for her, Washington said. So she tried to find a fellowship or other jobs that would both meet his needs and pay the bills. 

Ultimately, she made the decision to “sacrifice” earning more money “than have him in an unsafe environment, mentally or physically.”

Also see: The rising cost of childcare is making life impossible for parents. Use our calculator to track the expense where you live.

Back-to-school season

During the school year, meanwhile, Isbell’s two younger children, ages 9 and 11, go to after-school care. But when school is out for the summer, they too require full-time care. Isbell enrolled her kids in her state’s subsidized child-care program for a flat fee, but she still had difficulties. 

Subsidized child-care programs typically calculate their fees based on pay stubs for the past 3 months or past 6 weeks, depending on the program, she said. Isbell, who shifted to part-time work in late April, paid $50 for each of her children per week for three months, which was subsequently reduced to $20 a week in mid-July. 

But because she was working less than 20 hours a week during the summer, Isbell said she struggles with even that lower cost. 

Isbell works in a salon during the summer months. Working full-time requires employees to work at least 30 hours per week, take on two closing shifts, and be available to work on weekends. Her child-care duties meant she could not commit to that. Closing the salon after 6 p.m., for instance, means she can’t get to daycare until 6:30 p.m. — half an hour past the last pick-up time. During the school year, her son’s after-school program is open until 7 p.m.

It’s a double-edged sword: working full-time during the school year locks Isbell out of other government benefits. Isbell applied for government assistance to get through the lean summer months, but she wasn’t eligible based on her full-time work earlier in the year. “I only work part-time,” Isbell said she told agency officials. “This isn’t even half of what I usually make.”

As the summer comes to a close, Isbell expects back-to-school season to be another financial strain on her household’s finances as she must buy uniforms, shoes and other school supplies. She has already maxed out her credit cards. 

She planned to return to full-time work at the salon, although the requirement to show up for two closing shifts, and have weekend flexibility will make that near-impossible. But like millions of working moms across America, she will fight on. 

“You are a mother,” she said. “You make a way when there’s no way.”


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