How a Dashboard on the Care Economy Came to Be
A new project to describe the empirical dimensions of the care economy in the U.S. is now underway.
It was the end of April 2020. I’d just spent almost six weeks at home with my family and couldn’t stop wondering how all the other mothers were managing. We’d all just made it through a little more than a month of pandemic chaos with everyone sheltered in their homes – baking sour dough breads (yeast had sold out at the grocery store weeks before) and trying to get our hands on some N95 masks so we could attempt to join civilization once again. I was burnt out, just like everyone else. As a researcher, it was hard to focus given I was sharing my workspace with loved ones expressing needs and wants.
So, I did what any solid researcher should do. I started diving into the parts and pieces of the pandemic that drove the rage and angst within me. I started investigating what happen to all of us mothers when the pandemic hit. Were mothers’ experiences with the labor market the same or different that fathers or others without children in their homes? Were the disproportionate care responsibilities that mothers took on reducing their ability to work for pay?
That research resulted in a paper highlighting the disproportionate number of mothers who took a leave from employment when the pandemic first hit. They faced social pressure to care for children who were no longer physically attending school.
The research spiraled into a voluntary side hustle for me. Reporters from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were reaching out. Did I have data on mothers’ and fathers’ paid labor force participation? Would I share it with them? What did I see in the data? Determined to help journalists get the story right, I was crunching data left and right. At that point a gaping hole in our economic statistics began to loom large.
Our federal statistical agencies were not producing paid labor force participation statistics by parental status, and, because of that, there was a high risk we were getting our stories about women’s work all wrong. I wrote about it here. When women’s paid labor force participation slowed, we assumed it was because of childcare. Yet, when the data was disentangled by parental status, it showed that mothers were getting back to paid jobs first faster than college-age and retirement-age women.
I continued producing and reproducing statistics for journalists whenever they asked for them because I really believed mothers and caregivers deserved to have their stories based on evidence and not on pre-conceived notions of the role caregiving plays in women’s ability to earn money. But the side hustle was exhausting, taking time away from my own family life.
I decided it was time to get strategically smart about the lack of data, and the idea of a care dashboard (Care Board for short) was born. Could we construct a dashboard of statistics describing the care economy that were not blinded by traditionally male-dominated perspectives? A centralized location where journalists, policy analysts, and related groups could go to find nuanced, in-depth data about the role and dynamics of caregiving, employment, and the economy?
With generous funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, I was able to convert this dream into a reality. The Care Board aims for a soft launch in the summer of 2024. It will be a dashboard of comprehensive statistics on the care economy built from the vantage point of caregivers. I define care work in the broadest sense as work that requires intensive human interaction motivated by concern for another individual’s well-being. This includes both unpaid and paid work. For example, the Care Board will highlight that the paid care workforce includes around 23.4 million individuals each month, more workers than the population of Florida.
Numbers like these are just the tip of the iceberg for the Care Board. The ultimate, long-term goals are, post-birth, to get it up and running through its awkward adolescent phase, and then, once it has grown to maturity, to transition it into a federal statistical agency so that it may become a standard data resource provided by the federal government to help inform society and policymakers about the critical economy of care.
The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
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