Understanding the silent suffering of unpaid care workers
Written by GKCCEH
Published June 22, 2021

How many times have you heard someone say, “Family first”? It’s an admirable and noble sentiment that many of us hope to carry out in our own families. The idea that family should come first is easy to agree with – we should have the freedom to prioritize our families and the people we love. 

Unfortunately, caring for family members often results in significant financial sacrifice and has the power to lead the caretaker to extreme financial hardship. A parent caring for a child with special needs should not have to choose between paying rent or paying for medicine. An adult child of an ill and aging parent should not have to sacrifice their income in order to care for their mother or father. 

Unpaid care work saves our country trillions of dollars while spiraling our underappreciated workers into financial duress. 

Burden of care disproportionately falls on women

People of all genders find themselves sacrificing greatly to care for loved ones. However, reports show this is a problem that affects women far more frequently and more drastically than men. 

A recent New York Times article estimates the United States women would have made $1.5 Trillion last year if they were paid minimum wage for their unpaid care work. 

A 2020 Oxfam report puts an economic value of $10.8 trillion on unpaid care work performed by women and girls, noting that their work benefits the global economy three times more than the entire technology industry. 

What does unpaid care work look like? 

In short, unpaid care work includes domestic services provided in a household instead of sold on the market. These services include but are not limited to caring for children, cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, caring for the elderly, etc. 

All of these tasks require significant time and provide enormous economic benefits. Keeping children healthy and fostering their growth is impossible to quantify. Caring for ill or elderly family members inside the home is immeasurable. 

Though this work is straining, time-consuming, and costly for the caregiver, it is almost never valued as highly in our society as paid employment. 

What does unpaid care work cost the caregiver? 

Unpaid caregivers suffer financially while simultaneously contributing positively to our economy and giving selflessly to their families. 

The same Oxam report estimates women spend on average 37% more time doing unpaid care work than men. This disparity is even greater for women who are caring for young children and aging parents at the same time. 

When a caregiver spends an average of 5 to 8 hours a day in unpaid care tasks, the hours they can devote to paid work are slashed. The majority of domestic care work must happen during normal daytime hours, further restricting the type of employment available to these people. 

People who find themselves taking extended leave from the workforce do this at a deficit because they miss out on months or years of valuable experience. Holes in employment status on a resume can lessen a person’s chance at landing a job. And, the opportunity to learn and improve skills that could lead to higher paying job opportunities is often completely lost. 

In addition, care work requires resources. Paying for medicine or medical treatment, purchasing cleaning supplies or necessary equipment, gas burned transporting people to and from appointments, preparing food, it all adds up. 

Then, there is the mental, emotional, and physical toll this type of work takes on a person. Women in unpaid care work consistently report higher levels of stress and exhaustion. They begin to experience a decrease in their own health without the capacity or the time to address those health concerns before they become more serious. 

How does this contribute to housing and homelessness? 

Resources for unpaid care workers are limited. Tackling this problem is an uphill battle that includes addressing the gender and racial equality gaps that are the result of generations of oppression. 

Too often, we see low and middle-income families supporting their aging parents or relatives with chronic health conditions. At first, they are able to keep their head above water. They do their best to balance their own time and finances to keep everyone afloat. But, the reality is, it does not take long before the caretaker’s paid employment is affected, medical bills pile up, the caretaker faces his or her own health challenges, and resources run dry. 

It is not uncommon to see pairs of caregivers and the person they’re caring for, in a desperate housing situation. 

At the time of this article’s publish date, Congress is assessing President Biden’s infrastructure plan that in part addresses the caregiver problem. In it, he proposes solutions for greater access to affordable childcare and spending on care for the elderly and people with disabilities. 

Time will tell how much of his proposal will make it into policy. But, we will keep a close eye on the topic and keep you updated here.