Politics of Poverty

Mother’s Day and the importance of unpaid care work during the COVID-19 pandemic

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OGB_105879_Paulina with her son Andrew.jpg
Paulina Sibanda stands with her son Andrew* in their kitchen in Zimbabwe. A participant in the Oxfam We-Care project, she lives with her husband Opheus and their two children. Paulina and Orpheus share and divide the household tasks. When she fetches the water, he does the laundry. Photo: Oxfam/Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville

As parents navigate the prolonged closure of schools, daycares, and in-home support systems, women and girls are taking on a disproportionate burden of parenting and caring.

In honor of Mother’s Day, Oxfam celebrates the hard work of all parents struggling to be teachers and care givers right now. The anxiety of ensuring health and safety, coupled with basic needs of shelter and food, is enormous as the US struggles to juggle the dangers of this uncertain time.

As COVID-19 disrupts the lives of people worldwide—physically separating us from our communities and loved ones—we are called to celebrate this holiday in strange new ways. While parents navigate the difficulties of the prolonged closure of schools, daycares, and in-home support systems, too often a disproportionate burden of parenting and caring is expected of women and mothers.

That’s because unpaid care—the uncompensated labor of caring for communities, homes, children, and family members who may need it—falls largely on women.

More than 12 billion hours of unpaid care work—every day

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we at Oxfam called attention to the fact that women and girls around the world put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day. That’s a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year—over three times the size of the world’s tech industry.

In the US, we estimated that women spent nearly 40 percent more time on unpaid care than men. This unequal distribution of unpaid work—essential to families and society—limits women’s career choices, income, and personal development. It also affects their overall health and well-being.

With the spread of COVID-19, unpaid care work has increased dramatically. Much of this work has collapsed onto women’s shoulders, and as the timelines for social distancing—as well as school, care services and workplace opening delays—extend, this burden will encroach on women’s economic opportunities and career trajectories. And for those women who cannot afford to be at home, they will continue to double and triple-down on their paid and unpaid care work to survive.

Policy changes must recognize the value of unpaid care

As we recognize this Mothers’ Day, and the huge impact of COVID-19 on all families, we must reexamine the importance of care work—paid and unpaid–in our economy and to celebrate those who provide it.

There are many changes that could support parents and caregivers in our communities during this pandemic and beyond.

  • Financial relief that is directed at every individual is far safer than family relief funds, as often the head of the family is a man, and that relief may be used to further isolate women and LGBTQIA+ people in the home. This could open the door for a real policy discussion around universal basic income, which would provide unpaid caregivers—such as stay-at-home parents and caregivers—with economic recognition and real compensation for their essential work.
  • Workplace-related policy solutions such as guaranteed paid family and medical leave, flexibility in work schedules and locations, and paid sick days allow for the burden of unpaid care to be more equitably shouldered. In two-income households, for example, these options could enable both parents to spend time caring for children, the sick, or the elderly in their care. Solutions like this also help to equalize the way working parents schedule and stagger time off to care for loved ones—helping to close the persistent gender wage gap that is exacerbated by the notion that women are the default care givers for our children, our parents, and our societies. It also invites men into caring roles that can have positive health and emotional outcomes for themselves and their families.
  • Universal childcare. This is something both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders has proposed through funds from taxes on the highest earners in our society. In Sanders’ proposal, an unpaid caregiver subsidy was also part of the plan. Such a comprehensive policy proposal would lower the costs of childcare for millions of low- and middle-income families, as well as encourage more women to participate in the workforce, as data from state-level expansions of preschool have shown.

In honor of Mother’s Day, we celebrate all parents—the care they give, the time they sacrifice, and the communities they foster. Now is the time to create comprehensive social, economic, and political reforms to demonstrate the value of the care work that is put into stark relief by this pandemic.

This inequality affects us all. Read our Time to Care report featured in the New York Times about how our sexist economies are fueling the inequality crisis.

Download now
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