from Women Around the World

The Social and Economic Costs of Unpaid Caregiving

As is true for most women around the world, American women disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid care work.The fact that women disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid care work is not only an equality issue, but also an economic growth issue.

July 27, 2017

A woman and a child look at miniature sailboats on Mother's Day in Central Park, New York City, U.S., May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney
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As is true for most women around the world, American women disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid care work. Globally, women on average invest more than twice the amount of time in unpaid care work than men. Unpaid care work is most commonly defined as work that is done within a household for its members. It includes cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, the elderly, and the ill. While such care work can sometimes be rewarding, it has certain costs, including foregoing wage earning and other opportunities. The fact that women disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid care work is not only an equality issue, but also an economic growth issue.

Unpaid care in the United States was valued at $3.2 trillion or around 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012. American women spent over two hours daily on household chores in 2010 compared to just 82 minutes daily for men. A Mckinsey Global Institute report found that if women participated in the global economy on an equal basis with men, it would add $28 trillion to the annual global GDP by 2025.  But someone has to do the work of caring for children and other types of care work. The value of unpaid care work itself is substantial, but because it is not compensated as income, as a society, we lose out on the potential tax revenue that would be generated if it were compensated. Further, no country is capturing the benefit of unpaid care work in major economic indicators such as GDP or Gross National Product (GNP). 

One way for countries, like the United States, to better support unpaid care work and incentivize men to participate is by improving parental leave policies—for both mothers and fathers—and access to childcare. While this is not a new idea, what appears to be new is bi-partisan interest, if not consensus, on at least modest support for paid leave.

Few observers argue that women should be paid wages for unpaid care work, as this is not politically realistic. But there is some interest in policy circles to create better family leave policies and to provide broader access to childcare. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows American parents to take unpaid leave. However, parents mostly rely on private sources, such as support from their employers for paid leave, and most companies in the United States offer limited, if any, paid parental leave options.  And, of course, moms are more likely than dads to take off time when a baby is born.   

The United States remains one of the few countries that does not guarantee paid maternal leave, let alone paternal leave. The United States should not only introduce paid parental leave, but incentivize men to take paternity leave. For example, in Sweden, both mothers and fathers get 16 months of paid paternal leave. In order to incentivize men to use the leave, the Swedish government requires that they use ninety days of the total leave or they lose them. Given this “use it or lose it” approach, as of 2014, Swedish men have begun taking an increasing proportion of paid parental leave available to the couple.

A generous paid leave policy can only go so far, since parents must often return to work when a parental leave period comes to an end. Once parents return to work, access to quality and affordable childcare for young children can be critical— not only to help out working parents, but also to provide a developmentally stimulating environment for children to learn and grow. The United States has a federal childcare subsidy program for low-income families and other eligible families depending on the state. The program is administered by individual states, however, not all eligible families can use the program due to limited funding and strict requirements in some states.  Improving and expanding quality and affordable childcare, by expanding the federal childcare subsidy program or increasing its funding could help support parents and their children. 

There have been a number of proposals presented in Congress and by the White House about parental leave. Earlier this year, for example, the White House floated a proposal in the proposed budget for a new family leave program that would allow both parents to take six weeks of paid leave. There were also several proposals floating around on Capitol Hill, which include a bill in the House that would provide tax credits for employers who provide at least two weeks of paid paternal leave to their employees. At the state- level there has been a shift toward trying to secure better sick leave policies in lieu of paid parental leave. However, several proposals that have emerged in the current climate provide inadequate support and have focused solely on maternity leave, which reinforces stereotypes of women as the primary caregivers and in turn reinforces gender discrimination in the workforce against women. The initial White House proposal, announced in September, was a “mothers-only” proposal. However, in response to criticism—and after Ivanka Trump launched a working group about paid leave—fathers were included in a revised proposal announced this past spring. In the context of unpaid care work, one thing is certain, however, and that is that paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers would promote gender equality and support working parents and their children.

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