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Radically Reconceptualizing Care Work

Photo: Shutterstock / Halfpoint

Unpaid care work has always been a central part of the economy, but it’s also, always, gone largely undiscussed in public discourse. The reasons for this are many. For one, when we talk about and measure the performance of the economy, the official measures largely don’t include the impact of unpaid care. Second, this care work—both paid and unpaid—is often undervalued, at least in part because it’s largely done by people, namely women and people of color, whose work is similarly devalued. What’s more, many people have a difficult time thinking of care as what it is: work. Rather, it’s seen, particularly for women, as something “natural,” despite its weighty economic importance.

But increasingly, unpaid care work is becoming an important part of the discussion, both in academic and policy circles and in public debate. We can see this in major OECD reports and UN research, as well as in articles by public figures like New America President and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter in major publications like The Atlantic. There also are more than twice as many academic papers centered around “unpaid care work” so far this decade, compared to the previous one.

A key question, then, is this: What’s leading to this shift? We suspect that the answer lies, in large part, in changing, and related, gender dynamics at home and in the paid labor market. Put differently, women’s increased presence in the paid labor market has led to a partial rebalancing of care work duties between family members, as well as to outsourcing care work.

On one side of the equation, men are doing more unpaid care work. The number of men who report not working because they’re taking care of home and family has more than doubled over the last 20 years. Compared to fathers 50 years ago, today’s fathers do nearly three times the amount of child care. There’s also a growing number of stay-at-home fathers, not to mention tens of thousands of two-father families raising children.

At the same time, women—who continue to do the lion’s share of this care work, it should be said—have increased their share of the paid labor market. Women have comprised close to half of the workforce for decades—an amount they’re projected to maintain for years to come. Their earnings have also increased in importance: Close to two-thirds of mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners who are responsible for a quarter or more of their family’s earnings.

To be clear, juggling the competing demands of paid work and unpaid caregiving is a balance many women, particularly women of color, have long been wrestling with. Recent increased focus on work-life balance is a reflection of, in the words of Jocelyn Frye, “which women are valued and deserve attention; and which roles are appropriate for women in the workplace, in their families, and even in society.” Considering that women of color also disproportionately fill paid caregiving positions, centering their experiences in the caregiving conversation is a must.

And as more families have members working more out of the home, paid care work has been substituted for what was formerly unpaid care work provided by family members. The prevalence of paid care work has also given a way to measure the value that unpaid care work provides to the economy. For instance, based on the cost of paid care, researchers estimate that families provided nearly $36 billion in unpaid care for children with special health care needs in 2015—a figure that doesn’t even capture forgone earnings. The AARP uses a similar method to estimate the value of unpaid family care for adults with limitations at $470 billion in 2013. While paid and unpaid care work aren’t perfect substitutes for each other, and paid care work is undervalued and underpaid, these rough measures shine a light on the fact that there’s a real dollar value to the economy of unpaid care work.

So, is the country poised for yet more change in recognizing and valuing care work? We believe so. Unpaid caregivers for adults in need of assistance, for instance, will grow dramatically in the coming years, and in less than a decade, paid caregivers also are projected to be among the occupations with the most job growth.

But it’s not just economic trends that are shaping perceptions of unpaid care work; policy choices are at play, too. While not only people in the paid labor market do unpaid care, the tension between paid work and unpaid care that so many workers face is likely to increase in the future if policies continue to fail to keep pace and serve families’ needs. The nation needs policies that reflect the realities of 21st-century families—but policymakers, too often, are coming up short. Critical proposals that help families deal with the reality of unpaid care, such as efforts to improve scheduling practices and make child care both high quality and affordable, haven’t yet advanced at the national level. Moreover, caregiving policy proposals pushed by those in positions of power, like parental-only paid leave, are outdated and narrowly defined.

And perhaps most galling: Some policymakers are trying to rip critical caregiving supports away. A sterling example of this are attempts to dismantle Medicaid. Medicaid, which provides critical care for 15 million people with disabilities and supports nearly two-thirds of nursing home residents, has been targeted for enormous cuts. If such proposals are put into place, the increased amount of unpaid care families will be called upon to provide will be a huge shock—both to families and to the economy.

But these trends, on their own, won’t be enough to truly raise the profile of—and demonstrate the importance of—unpaid care work. Doing that will take concentrated efforts on a variety of fronts. It will require research, like that being done by economist Nancy Folbre and sociologist Paula England, that demonstrates the importance of this work to the economy. It will take philanthropists, like Melinda Gates, speaking about the issue. It will take centering the experiences and voices of women of color, who have a particular stake in the caregiving conversation but also are especially likely to be ignored. It will take organizers and activists, like Ai-jen Poo, working to create a future in which care work, of all kinds, is valued.  Indeed, empowering careworkers through labor movements is a crucial part of increasing the value and recognition of this work beyond what can be achieved through policy advocacy alone.

In other words, this full-court press—including policies that reflect the ever-evolving reality of American families—is what’s needed to ensure that we recognize the value of unpaid care work at a time when the strictures of care and caregiving are shifting so rapidly.


Katherine Gallagher Robbins is the director of family policy for the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

Kate Bahn is an economist at the Center for American Progress, where her work has focused on labor markets, retirement, the role of gender in the economy, inequality, and teacher labor markets.