The Minnesota Mom

What Moms in One Midwestern State Can Teach Us Regarding Work and Childcare

This midwestern-born economic nerd recently had a *moment* y’all. It happened last week.

I was working, minding my own business, when my phone flashed the arrival of a new email. **MPR News Media Request: …Misty Heggeness**

The public affairs office from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis was reaching out. My colleague, Palak Suri, and I had recently published a working paper there. The paper studied the impact of childcare disruptions on working mothers during the pandemic. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) asked for an interview to discuss the findings with – none other than – Cathy Wurzer (eeekkkk!!) on Minnesota Now. Would I be interested?

Ummmm, YES! Double YES, triple YES, Y.E.S.

This immediately brought back some of my favorite childhood memories. Listening to MPR from the cold pleather back seat of my aunt and uncle’s pickle-green Plymouth Volare station wagon as we road to church on a cold, crisp Sunday morning. My cousins and I groggy after a rambunctious sleepover involving dining-room-table forts that used every blanket and sheet in the house and creating melt-in-your-mouth individualized pizzas from scratch. Slumbering off to sleep listening to the vivacious music from an orchestra of crickets outside the bedroom window - after having just survived a round of scary storytelling in the dark. 

My mind then flipped to another bittersweet milestone – the rocky conversion of a goofy, awkward 18-year-old into a passionately independent social-justice driven young adult. Driving down Interstate Highway 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul in my battered, faded-red Volkswagen Jetta. On my way to one or another part time job I held in college (youth counselor at the YMCA, advocate at a battered women’s shelter, intern at the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services). MPR, always my steadfast, faithful companion, keeping me up-to-date on the latest news. Whether listening on an early Sunday morning as I sailed over an empty highway after an overnight shift at the shelter, or while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour, MPR has always had my back.

So, I was over-the-moon excited to have five-minutes of fame with midwestern news media royalty.

Leading up to the interview (which you can find here), they asked if I might be able to say something specifically about Minnesota mothers. My research looks at national trends, but this question got me thinking. What can we say about Minnesota moms? I started digging around in the data, leading to some rather interesting discoveries.

The nationally representative Current Population Survey (CPS), administered jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is less accurate when you drill down to anything below national estimates, so this entire analysis comes with a rather large grain-of-salt. But three trends appear to hold true.

First, Minnesota moms are deeply attached to paid employment outside their homes – almost nine out of every 10 prime-age custodial mothers in Minnesota were actively engaged in the labor force in 2019, compared to slightly more than 7-in-10 mothers nationally. Minnesota moms almost match the national statistic for dads.

This high rate of mothers’ labor force participation (LFP) jives with everything I remember from childhood and equates with the strong midwestern mentality of independence and work. On the homestead, it is all hands-on deck. After all, the farm is not going to run itself. Midwestern women are known for making things happen, running the show – especially the hotdish casserole party.

Don’t just take my word for it. Let me point you to the all too real, beloved fictional character Marge Gunderson from the Coen brothers’ classic movie Fargo. The Mother of all Minnesota moms.

Second, Minnesota mothers’ average labor force participation was basically equal to all Minnesota prime-age women’s labor force participation (LFP) in 2019 at a rate of 85%. Nationally, mothers’ LFP was two percentage points lower than the rate for all prime-age women (74% versus 76% respectively).

Third, in normal times Minnesota women have a LFP rate around ten percentage points higher than the national average (Figure 1). Minnesota women work outside their homes at higher rates and more persistently then the average U.S. woman. Not only do Minnesota women work more, so do Minnesota mothers.

Figure 1. Labor Force Participation, January 2018 to October 2021

Source: author’s calculations, Current Population Survey (Census Bureau/Bureau of Labor Statistics), ipums.org. Note: For this analysis, custodial Mothers are restricted to those with school-age children 5 to 17.

What does this mean, then, when a pandemic ravages schools and daycares bringing otherwise formal systems of care crashing down with parents left to pick up the slack?

If you were in Minnesota in the fall of 2020 and had school-age children, you are all too familiar with the Minnesota Nice version of the pandemic educational pod. The problem-solving flurry with which Minnesota moms engaged in creating pod educational environments may just have saved some of them from a harsh reality – increasing childcare needs that would disrupt their ability to work for pay. By October 2020, LFP of custodial mothers in Minnesota was on par with their pre-pandemic rates (85% compared to 85% pre-pandemic). Nationally, LFP of custodial mothers was still two percentage points lower than pre-pandemic times (72% vs. 74% respectively).

While as a nation we couldn’t find it in ourselves to prioritize systematic solutions of care for working mothers during the pandemic, problem-solving mothers in places like Minnesota went into fix-it mode (they always do). Many found they were able to solve the problem themselves – at least temporarily - through the creation of local education pods.

One year later with the start of the fall 2021 school year, while decisionmakers wrung their hands gasping, hoping, praying for a return to normal, moms knew we were not there yet. But this time, Minnesota moms were not able to save themselves. Convinced by local leaders that schools were back in full swing IN PERSON, most educational pods disappeared, and, along with it, stable short-term solutions for care.

Here to stay, at least temporarily, were new unreliable and immediate multi-day home quarantines due to COVID exposures at school. Daycare needs of the summer and uncertainty with which kids entered and exited school this fall had parents, particularly mothers, surprised, exhausted, and falling out of the labor force like flies – at least in Minnesota. By October 2021, mothers’ labor force participation had fallen four percentage points to 81% compared to pre-pandemic times (Table 2). Almost one additional whole mom out of every ten was no longer working for pay or even looking for paid work. Overall women’s LPF fell as well, showing us that no matter how hard we try to will the pandemic away, we will never get fully on track until public health policies and protocols are fully implemented and followed.

Table 2. Labor Force Participation Rates During the Pandemic, April/October

Source: author’s calculations, Current Population Survey (Census Bureau/Bureau of Labor Statistics), ipums.org. Note: For this analysis, custodial Mothers are restricted to those with school-age children 5 to 17.

What might the Minnesota experiment tell us about mothers and work? If we want to provide equal opportunity to paid work, mothers need reliable, accessible, affordable, and dependable childcare. And, when more women are engaged in paid labor, their labor force participation has a higher cliff to fall from when childcare and other hurdles bog them down.

To maximize economic growth and be a society where we all can reach our full potential, perhaps we should insist that our decision makers step up to the plate and take the lead from these determined, problem-solving Minnesota pod-making moms. Let’s fix a broken system and make childcare affordable, accessible, and reliable for all.