The Safety Net During the Pandemic: Childcare, Paid Leave, and Income-Support Programs | American Enterprise Institute

Important points

  • A new longitudinal survey indicates that the full-time employment rate for all working-age adults fell in the first few months after the pandemic hit, but largely recovered by September 2021. However, women experienced a more dramatic decline in full-time employment than what did. men in general.
  • Survey results also suggest that the limited supply of childcare did not cause this decline in employment, but rather that parental job loss and fears about COVID-19 reduced the demand for childcare services among parents.
  • The percentage of workers from our sample with access to paid leave increased from 44 to 55 percent throughout the pandemic. Engagement over the past six months has also increased throughout the pandemic, from 16 to 32 percent; however, a significant percentage reported an unmet need for leave in the previous six months, and this group increased from 15 to 32 percent during the pandemic.
  • The existing safety net (including the expansions of Congress) has been an important resource for many households in our sample throughout the pandemic. Results suggested that a significant proportion of participants were new to programs, especially recipients of unemployment insurance.

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As the U.S. begins to return to a post-pandemic normal, it is helpful to determine how workers and families fared during the COVID-19 pandemic to inform future policies and crisis response. To address these questions, the non-partisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago conducted a longitudinal survey among working-age adults for AEI shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey is unique in that it follows the same individuals over 18 months and asks them questions about their domestic work, use of child care and paid leave, participation in safety net programs, and attitudes about government.

The original Employment and Safety Net survey included 3,518 adult respondents of working age (ages 18–64), with a cross-section of 1,938 parents of children under the age of 18, recruited from a panel administered by NORC .1 We selected the original sample to represent the U.S. working-age adult population as a whole and weighed the results to reflect this population. The first wave of data collection took place from July 23 to August 7, 2020. In February 2021, NORC contacted the original survey respondents to complete a second wave of the survey, and 2,852 responded. We have released several reports summarizing the data of the first two waves of the survey.2

In September 2021, NORC contacted respondents again to complete a third wave of the survey, and 2,466 responded for a 70 percent retention rate. This report summarizes the results of the respondents who completed all three waves of the survey (“the sample”), and provides a unique picture of the changes that these adults and their households experienced during the first year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Table A1 summarizes the demographic characteristics of the original weighted sample (a = 3,518) after the sample that completed all three waves (a = 2,466). The sample that completed all three waves of data collection differed slightly from the original sample, especially slightly older, with a larger percentage age 60 and older and slightly lower income than the original sample skewed. Although we applied sample weights to reflect the broader population of working age while performing the analyzes, the interpretation of the results should keep these differences in mind. Although the trends observed in the data remain informative, they do not necessarily represent the broader adult working-age population due to survey attrition.

The following summarizes five areas covered by the survey: employment, child care, paid leave, safety net participation, and attitudes toward the pandemic and government response.

Read the full report.

Read the top line questionnaire.


  1. Angela Rachidi, “Employment and Safety Net Survey, Wave I: Employment Disruptions and the Safety Net’s Response amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” American Enterprise Institute, November 18, 2020, / report / employment-and-safety-net-survey-wave-i-employment-disruptions-and-the-safety-net-response-amid-the-covid-19-pandemic /.
  2. Previous reports can be found at American Enterprise Institute, “Angela Rachidi,”

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