Why Oxfam cares about care

Pre-school children and their teachers cross the street in New York City. Due to lack of U.S. federal government support for child care, it is a significant expense for most American families, and child care workers (many of them women) suffer from low pay. Istockphoto.com/Massimo Giachetti

Sharing unpaid care duties, and better policies to support caregivers, will create more opportunities for women and reduce inequality and poverty. On this International Women’s Day, Oxfam is urging Congress to increase funding for child care, support paid family and medical leave, and pass an expanded Child Tax Credit.

Ask any U.S. family about the responsibility of caring for children, or family members who are elderly or living with disabilities, and they can tell you: Care duties tend to fall to women, and they don’t get much help from the government.

“Care is so fundamental to our experience, but it is often ignored, marginalized, uncompensated, and undervalued in our society,” says Kesha Ram Hinsdale, a Vermont state senator and Oxfam Sisters on the Planet Ambassador©.

U.S. failing grade on care

In 2023 Oxfam worked with the National Partnership for Women and Families, National Women’s Law Center, and the Integration Lab at the Keough School at Notre Dame to assess how accessible U.S. federal policies around unpaid and underpaid care are to Americans. The research found that “Without the existence of basic care policies at the federal level... families in the U.S. have been left with little support from the federal government.” The study assesses government support for those delivering unpaid care work at home, such as paid sick and paid family and medical leave. It also examines access to federal programs in place for child care and early learning, which it says, “only reach a small fraction of people who need them.” The assessment scores all these factors and assigned the U.S. with a 43 out of 100, indicating that the U.S. is severely lacking in policies that support people providing care and those who need care.

“In the U.S., care work is still most often done by women,” the report states, estimating the “amount of unpaid care work they do is valued at almost $1.5 trillion annually.” Women of color and immigrant women are most harmed by the lack of support for caregivers.

Child care imposes a serious financial burden on most U.S. families. Low-income families can spend nearly 30 percent of their income on child care. Yet despite the high cost of child care, child care workers earn notoriously low salaries. Other workers caring for people living with physical and mental disabilities and elders face similar challenges of low wages and poor benefits. The lack of government support for care work deepens inequality and economic challenges faced by the Black, brown, and immigrant women who work in this sector.

Lack of support for caregivers in the U.S. is easy to understand, says Sen. Hinsdale. She points out that when government policies are developed and debated, women are not usually in the room. “That leaves a lot of people behind. We tend to forget about the caregivers, but also those who need care.”

Care and global inequality

Women and girls around the world carry out 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, according to a 2020 report by Oxfam. This contributes about $10.8 trillion of value to the global economy annually, for free. This unequal division of unpaid labor benefits the world’s men: They own 50 percent more wealth than women and tend to dominate business and government leadership positions. The effect of this is clear. When we impose all household duties such as cooking and cleaning, child care, and caring for sick, disabled, or elderly family members on women and girls, it holds them back economically and makes the world more unequal.

Johnny and Juanita Paz of Maguindanao, Philippines, take turns with household chores, farming, and caring for Juanita’s elderly and disabled parents. Oxfam provided them with Cash for Care Work assistance, which they used to buy food and medicine for their elderly family members. “It does not feel unmanly if I share housework with my wife,” Johnny says. “We are still equal. We need to work together and understand each other... Our love will still be the same.” Princess Taroza/Oxfam

Care duties are crucial for society. What would happen if no one did all the cooking, cleaning, washing, and fetching of water and firewood? Household care work makes most other employment possible, but care work is not valued fairly. Most governments and economists ignore time spent on care duties in their measurements of economic activity and policy discussions.

Encouraging families to share domestic duties at home is one way we can help women break free from unequal unpaid care. Oxfam’s Women's Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-CARE) initiative works with our partners and women’s rights organizations in four countries and at the Pan-African level to develop ways to evaluate who does unpaid care work, and develop policy solutions to encourage societies to rethink gender roles in families. This can help to encourage men to take on equal levels of care duties at home to free up their partners’ time to pursue paid employment and leadership positions in their communities.

What Oxfam is doing to promote more just care policies in U.S.

Oxfam is asking our supporters like you to help us push our leaders in Washington, D.C., to make significant federal investments in care workers and caregivers.

We’re calling on lawmakers to:

  • Protect and strengthen policies that increase support for child care workers and infrastructure, and increased funding for low- and middle-income families via Child Care Development Block Grants;
  • Expand the Child Tax Credit, which was responsible for a 46 percent reduction in child poverty when it was temporarily enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Provide paid family leave and paid sick leave to all workers, so that workers aren’t forced to choose between caring for themselves and their loved ones or losing their livelihoods.

On International Women’s Day, Vermont state Sen. Hinsdale is also suggesting that the U.S. needs more women with experience providing care to represent their communities at all levels of government, so they can create better policies.

“When people who have provided care … sit at the head of the table, the questions are different, the people speaking are different, and the agenda is very different,” she says. She calls on more women to mount political campaigns: “Please, everyone, run for office!”

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