Who Cares? The Value of Unpaid Carework in Minnesota
By Youngmin Chu | December 19, 2023
Carework—labor that is not compensated monetarily and encompasses activities focused on nurturing and sustaining others – is an everyday necessity. Cooking, cleaning, and tending to children and elders, these activities make our collective paid work possible. Even though care work is central to human and social well-being and economic prosperity, much of this work is done for free at home, and women have traditionally been expected to undertake this labor out of familial duty. As the international socialist feminist collective Wages for Housework put it, “They say it is love, we say it is unwaged work.”
My co-author, Dr. Christina Ewig, and I analyzed the state of unpaid carework in Minnesota, as part of the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy’s fact sheet series examining gender inequity in Minnesota. Who Cares? A Fact Sheet on Unpaid Carework in Minnesota sheds light on the empirical facts of the invisible labor of carework, emphasizing its indispensable role in sustaining Minnesota’s economy.
Unpaid Carework in Minnesota’s Economy
Who Cares? is the first report to calculate the annual monetary contribution of unpaid carework to Minnesota’s economy—an astounding $88.1 billion per year.
Unpaid carework is not included in Minnesota’s gross domestic product (GDP), but if it was, it would account for 17.6% of the total GDP. Women contribute 60% and men contribute 40% to this figure. This is actually a conservative approximation of the contribution unpaid carework makes to Minnesota’s economy, as it only considers the value of finished services and does not account for finished goods created through unpaid activities, such as food preparation or knitting a sweater.
Why is carework not included in our state or national GDP? Gross domestic product represents the overall monetary value of all completed goods and services produced within a specific region’s boundaries during a given period. Uncompensated work performed by individuals for themselves and their families is not exchanged in the market, which makes it challenging to track. Due to the absence of transactional data, household production has traditionally been excluded when accounting for GDP.
More importantly, unpaid labor has historically been excluded because people consider this kind of labor to be women’s work. The exclusion of unpaid carework renders invisible and devalues female labor. By not including this work, we overlook a significant amount of productive activity. It is also bizarre to disregard the economic value of tasks such as food preparation, house cleaning, and child care, which enable us to engage in paid work.
Since unpaid labor is predominantly carried out by women, incorporating this labor into GDP is crucial for advancing gender equality. It serves as a means of acknowledging the need for and valuing this unpaid labor.
The Male Care Deficit in Unpaid Carework
Women in Minnesota spend more time on unpaid labor than men (6 hours versus 4 hours), which tends to be true across all racial and ethnic groups, educational levels, and parental status. Minnesota ranks 18th in terms of gender equality in sharing unpaid care, indicating that there is room for improvement in how men in Minnesota contribute to unpaid care.
We refer to this gender imbalance in unpaid carework as a “male care deficit,” to draw attention to the need for greater sharing of the burden of unpaid care.
Despite the high labor force participation rate of women in Minnesota (61%), their work responsibilities extend beyond the boundaries of their paid jobs. Upon returning home from work in restaurants, hospitals, and offices, many women must then engage in carework. The most time-consuming forms of unpaid carework are housework and child care. On a daily basis, the average Minnesota woman dedicates an additional 36 minutes to housework and 55 minutes to childcare compared to the average man.
A lot of this work falls on women with children. The amount of time dedicated to unpaid carework certainly increases with parenthood, more for women than men. Minnesota mothers spend about three times as many hours per day on unpaid labor (such as laundry and cleaning) than women without children. Mothers also spend 70 minutes more each day on child care than fathers. Mothers with young children (under 12) disproportionately take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities. Heterosexual marriage also increases women’s unpaid carework: single mothers spend less time on unpaid labor than married mothers and same-sex couples allocate their time to household tasks more equally.
The significance of unpaid care responsibilities for women directly affects their paid labor and long-term earning potential. Engaging in a “double day” of unpaid care and paid work can constrain women’s ability to work full time or result in them opting for part-time employment, consequently limiting their earnings. The impact of this double duty is highlighted in another of our fact sheets, “Who Earns? A Fact Sheet on Gender and Employment in Minnesota.” Indeed, research shows that men’s and women’s earnings are relatively equal early on in their careers and the wage gap increases as women start to get married and have children. The burden of unpaid care can depress women’s bargaining power in the family and society.
We Care: Promoting Gender Equity in Unpaid Carework
Changing public policy is integral to promoting greater gender equity in unpaid carework and ensuring all families have what they need to thrive. We need to build a robust caring infrastructure.
Studies indicate that implementing paid parental leave of up to 30 weeks and paternity leave –at least 70% of the existing salary—can promote greater gender equity in caregiving. The MN Paid Leave legislation passed in 2023 offers a favorable solution in this regard. It allows for 20 weeks of leave in the case of childbirth starting in 2026. Parents and caregivers can combine a 12-week medical leave (including for pregnancy and post-birth recovery) and 12 weeks of parental or caregiving leave, with a maximum of up to 20 weeks per benefit year. At the federal level, policymakers must rally to pass a national paid parental leave program.
In addition, policymakers can take steps to make child care more affordable and accessible. The cost of child care in Minnesota is currently the sixth most expensive in the nation. Furthermore, flexible work hours and predictable scheduling aid individuals in achieving a better work-life balance. Research shows women often face a “flexibility penalty” due to taking time off, exiting the job market, or working part-time, resulting in reduced earnings, skills, benefits, and reputations.
With affordable child care and flexible work arrangements options, caregivers, regardless of gender, can effectively manage both their work and caregiving responsibilities.
Such policies not only promote an equal share of care responsibilities but also have the potential to reduce the gender wage gap by allowing women to stick to their paid work without sacrificing their careers.
Above all, it is crucial to recognize the significance of unpaid labor. Caring responsibilities, often associated with “women’s work,” are frequently devalued and lack formal recognition in society and by our government. This must be fundamentally challenged. It is worth noting that male caregivers also suffer from this underestimation, as they too remain largely invisible in this context. Unpaid care work plays a vital role in the functioning of households and societies, and it deserves institutional recognition and economic value. Without addressing these issues, individuals engaged in caregiving will continue to encounter significant challenges in their lives.
Youngmin Chu is a PhD student in Public Affairs at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the co-author of Who Cares? A Fact Sheet on Unpaid Carework in Minnesota
Photo credit: Istock.com/grinvalds