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Fed Chair Jerome Powell Says the Most Frightening Aspects of the Pandemic Are Women Leaving the Workforce and Kids Getting Inadequate Education

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Over the past eight months, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on the lives of the majority of Americans and created concerns about the its lasting effects on the U.S. economy. 

And some effects of the pandemic are worse than others. Jerome Powell, chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, addressed which ones he currently finds most concerning on Thursday during the European Central Bank Forum on Central Banking.

When asked what frightens him most, given the current environment brought about by the pandemic, Powell responded: "For me, would be the risk that there is some longer-run damage to the productive capacity of the economy and to people's lives who have been disrupted by the pandemic — it's women who are not by choice out of the labor force, it's kids who aren't getting the education they should be getting."

Powell is also concerned about small businesses and "workers who are out of work for a long period of time and losing their connection to the labor force and really losing the life they had."

His concerns are not without merit. Nearly 2.2 million women left the workforce between February and October, according to the National Women's Law Center. The unemployment rate among women over the age of 20 was 6.5% for the month of October (see chart below), down from 7.7% in September, but higher among Black and Latina women.

National Women's Law Center

The pandemic and resulting recession hit industries that employ more women than men — including restaurants, retail, hospitality and health care — harder than others, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Plus, only 22% of women occupy jobs that allow them to work remotely, compared to 28% of men. 

The high unemployment rate among women is also tied to the fact that the pandemic shut down schools and day cares. About 32% of K-12 students in the U.S. are currently attending schools that are only offering virtual learning, according to the latest school opening report from Burbio, which tracks school and community calendars nationwide.

Those school closures have caused many families to have to juggle work responsibilities with child care, a balancing act that, again, typically impacts women's careers more than men's. In fact, 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, a report published at the end of September from Lean In and McKinsey & Company found.

And it's not just affecting parents. Remote schooling is also having an impact on students and their academic progress. Some children have been unable to get a reliable internet connection at home, while others have had difficulty accessing and using remote learning platforms and apps.

For these and other reasons, Powell worries it isn't the same quality as in-person instruction. He's not alone: About 70% of parents feel their children are missing pieces of their education, according to a survey conducted by family finance app Jassby in mid-October among 1,000 parents with school-aged children. Nearly a third of parents are more afraid for their children's future now than they were just two months ago.

A majority of college students have also reported experiencing a lower-quality education with remote classes. Nearly 94% of students said their classes have not been worth the tuition that was paid, according to a recent survey of over 10,000 polled by OneClass.

The long-term consequences of this shifting quality of education could be significant, especially as the U.S. continues to move toward an economy supported by technology and more jobs that require advanced skills.

"We're recovering, but to a different economy — and it will be one that is more leveraged to technology," Powell said Thursday. "I worry that is going to make it even more difficult than it already was for many workers."

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