Penalties for Paid and Unpaid Care Work

Care work is performed in the service of others—its purpose is to promote the physical or psychological health and development of the recipient. Paid or unpaid, care work is often shaped by moral obligations, social norms, and personal preferences, which complicate remuneration. In general, caregivers receive lower wages than their counterparts in other sectors, but when women workers reduce their paid employment to assume responsibility for the unpaid care of family members, they pay a price—reduced wages—upon their return to the labor force. They also tend to earn less with each subsequent child. Simply put, care labor appears to carry negative economic consequences. Does care work pay less because of who does the job, the skills associated with the job, or for other reasons? Do high-skilled workers pay a higher wage penalty than their low-skilled counterparts? Do all mothers pay a penalty? What other measurable costs are attached to performing care labor? The answers to these questions may help address important policy questions, such as whether work-family reconciliation policies can help reduce or eliminate the care work penalty, whether more broadly defined income support strategies will ease those pay differences, or whether income support policies should target particular groups of care workers.

In order to assess whether those who engage in care work (paid or unpaid) experience economic penalties and the cumulative effect of those penalties during the course of women’s work and family careers, RSF Care Work Working Group members Paula England (NYU) and Suzanne Bianchi (UCLA), in collaboration with Michelle Budig (UMass at Amherst) and Joan Kahn (UMaryland at College Park), will use nationally representative panel data on two cohorts of women (early baby boomers and late baby boomers) who have been observed from their youth into their late 40s and 50s. The data, from the National Longitudinal Surveys (NLS) include detailed employment and family information collected repeatedly throughout the adult lives of the respondents. The investigators’ analysis of paid work will compare the wages of those working in care-giving occupations (e.g., child care worker, home health aide, nursing home attendant, nurse, teacher, psychotherapist) to those working in other occupations—adjusting for education, sex, and job characteristics (including cognitive and physical-skill demands). Their analysis of unpaid work will focus on whether there is a motherhood penalty, for whom, and how big the cumulative penalty is over time. The project will look at employment continuity, wage trajectories, and occupational status before having a first birth (or adopting a young child) and after, including the effects of subsequent births. Results will be reported in a series of journal articles and, if warranted at the end of the process, a jointly authored book.

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