Spotlight Exclusives

New Project Would Quantify Participation in the ‘Care Economy’

Misty Heggeness Misty Heggeness, posted on

The coronavirus pandemic brought into stark relief the critical role caregivers of all kinds play in the American economy, as well as highlighting how limited the statistical data is on the caregiving economy. University of Kansas professor Misty Heggeness is leading a new project to collect data on the care economy to quantify the often underrecognized work of providing care for others and make the information available in a central location to help policymakers, researchers, nonprofits and others. Heggeness spoke with Spotlight recently about the Care Board project; the transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with how the Care Board got started?

The idea for the Care Board originated during the pandemic. I’m currently an associate professor at the University of Kansas, but during the pandemic, I was working as a senior advisor and principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau. And as the pandemic dragged on, I had some really monumental shifts in my own work and personal life, like we all did. I had been doing a fellowship in Minneapolis and my family was living in the D.C. area, and I had been flying back to D.C. every other weekend. When the pandemic hit, I flew back to the D.C. area and stayed there. All of a sudden, I was in my house 24/7 with my two young kids, 10 and 12, and my spouse, who was also working remotely. It was just really such a shift and the dynamics around taking care of family and trying to take care of work were very challenging for us in our household.

And so, I started doing research on that topic—looking at what happened to working mothers at the onset of the pandemic—which resulted in a research paper showing that there was this differential effect on mothers which largely focused on the take up of personal leave from work. Moms were disproportionately taking up leave so that they could handle the school crisis at home.

After I published that research, I started interacting and talking with journalists who were also covering that topic and were interested in what was happening with women and work around the time of the pandemic. I started generating statistics for journalists and other folks who were interested in labor force trends of mothers specifically, and I just came to the realization that as a federal government, we didn’t have any regularly produced statistics on different subgroups of women—especially mothers.

While there was a lot of reporting happening on caregivers, and, particularly, women because they disproportionately handle care responsibilities, it was missing the underlying story because we were looking at overall trends in women’s labor force participation. I kept on producing statistics on mothers and talking with folks out in the community who wanted to report on this. And I got burnt out. I was producing these statistics not as a part of my job, but in the evenings and weekends, because I really wanted people to get the story right. And so, when I came here to the University of Kansas, I was still getting calls from people, and I just felt that there was no reason why the federal government shouldn’t tell this story on a regular basis.

I wrote a proposal and submitted to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation around this idea of the invisibility of women in official statistics, and how we are not good at capturing economic activity, particularly of women, in official statistics and economic measurements. The Sloan Foundation was very receptive and supportive, and they have agreed to fund the project, which I’m super excited about. Our focus now is to bring statistics and research about the economic activity of women and caregivers to the forefront and produce them regularly and make them easily accessible to anybody who wants them, whether that’s think tanks or journalists or any other source. Sloan has funded the first two years of the project, which is a four or five-year effort. Once we’ve fine-tuned a dashboard and got it up and running and stable, my hope is to then transfer this dashboard to a federal statistical agency like the Census Bureau and have the federal government produce these statistics on a regular, ongoing basis.

And does this data exist in, in some cases and you’re just putting it in one place? Or are you having to create new data on your own? Probably a combination of the two.

It’s definitely a combination of the two. There’s a lot of additional statistics you can create with already existing Household Survey data, but you have to kind of crunch the numbers. And so to the extent that that’s the case, then we’ll do that. There are other situations like the GDP data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis produces every year that historically has never captured the economic activity of women, primarily because women do a lot of economic activity informally in their homes where there’s no formal exchange of money. Within the past five to 10 years, the BEA has started creating this satellite GDP measure, which includes household production. And one of the benefits of that is that when the pandemic hit, they could look at what happened overall to the formal official measure of GDP, and then what happened overall to GDP if we include household production. There was a spike in household production when the pandemic hit because everybody stopped going out to restaurants and started making their own food at home, etc. One of our goals with the Care Board is that instead of having the BEA produce these ad-hoc, one-off reports with of the satellite measures, we can just consistently produce it on an annual basis and have it easily available.

Care is often ignored, and the care economy is very misunderstood. And one of the reasons why it’s misunderstood is because we are not good at quantifying it. We’re not good at capturing the enormous amount of care that happens in the U.S. and across the globe on a daily basis. And so, one of the lofty goals of this project is to create a system where we can more effectively and systematically measure care activity in the U.S. and get a better grasp on the overall care economy.

And when you say the care economy, obviously that includes caring for children, but presumably also caring for other family members?

Yes, and this gets back to your question about how easy or how difficult is it to produce some of these statistics. When we think about the care economy, there’s a couple of concepts that are kind of important to understand. The first thing that I’ll say is there are varying definitions of care and what care work is and what it means. I try to use the broadest sense of a definition of care work in describing it as work that somebody engages in related to the health and wellbeing and development of another human being. So, within that broad sense of the definition, you also have formalized care work and informal care work.

For formal care work, you have child care programs and people who work in child care centers. Informal care work would be parents taking care of their children, or adult children taking care of their elderly parents. The general definition would also involve care work that’s done in schools and hospitals. If you think about schools, teachers are there to help build educational skills and train children, but at the same time, they are simultaneously providing some type of adult supervision for those children.

And men would be included to the degree that they participate in the care economy?

Yes. I specialize in gender and the economy, and a lot of my work focuses on women and women in the labor force. But for this project, we are interested not just in women, but in caregivers, and caregivers are both men and women. They disproportionately tend to be women, but we will not be censoring by gender or excluding by gender.

And I believe I’ve read that you hope to have a beta version of this up in about two years?

Yes, in about two years we hope to have a dashboard version up that’s functioning and providing useful information and data for research.

And what’s an example that you would use of something that policymakers could use this for?

I’ll use the example of the research that I had started during the beginning of the pandemic, which is producing statistics on leave take up. The pandemic was terrible and globally disastrous on so many levels. But if we were looking for ways to make lemonade out of pandemic lemons, one would be that it did force a lot of additional research and attention to this idea of women’s labor supply and specifically mothers. So, from the pandemic, we have had a handful of research articles produced that have really given us additional new insights into the dynamics of how women, and specifically how mothers, work today.

One of those insights is that mothers disproportionately take up leave to deal with child care issues. And while that might not seem like a very important component of the story of the workforce, it’s actually very critical in helping us understand gender wage gaps, for example. Because if we’re just looking at labor force participation, if we’re just looking at who has a job and who doesn’t, we still have this continual, persistent gender wage gap yet we see that women are continuing to actively engage in paid employment. We might not be able to really uncouple or understand that dynamic if we don’t understand that women or caregivers aren’t always at the table at the same rate as men or those without care responsibilities to take up the new job opportunity or the new project that their supervisors present because they might be taking their child to the dentist or might be helping their elder parent with something and out on sick leave. I think what we’re getting is a richer understanding of the dynamics of how women and caregivers work and where the vulnerabilities might be in terms of things that hold them back.


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